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Uighur tensions show up at Australia film festival

Three Chinese filmmakers have pulled their films from the Melbourne Film Festival over an Australian documentary profiling Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, whom Beijing has accused of fomenting unrest.

July 25, 2009|Joshua Frank and Barbara Demick

BEIJING — China's ethnic tensions have spilled into Australia, where all Chinese films scheduled for the Melbourne Film Festival have been pulled to protest the inclusion of a documentary about Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.

The films were withdrawn by their directors on the eve of the festival's opening Friday after organizers turned down the Chinese government's request that they cancel the screening of "The 10 Conditions of Love," an Australian-made documentary about Kadeer.

The Chinese government blames Kadeer, who heads the World Uighur Congress based in Washington, for violence this month in the northwestern city of Urumqi that left at least 197 people dead.

"It is a great shame for the festival and a great shame for China," Jeff Daniels, director of the documentary, said in a telephone interview from Melbourne. He said it would be the first time that the Melbourne Film Festival, the largest in Australia, did not have Chinese films.

There was no official comment from the Chinese government, but the English-language China Daily newspaper reported Friday that the three Chinese directors made the decision to withdraw their films.

Zhang Xianmin, a filmmaker and lecturer at the Beijing Film Academy, was skeptical.

"I think it's a ridiculous decision. I don't know if it was made by the filmmakers themselves or somebody else, [but] there must have been pressure somewhere," Zhang said.

Withdrawn were Jia Zhangke's short film "Cry Me a River," Emily Tang's "Perfect Life" and Zhao Liang's "Petition."

In a statement, Jia said he didn't know much about the situation of the Uighurs, an ethnic Turkic minority group, but said he didn't wish to give offense by having his film appear in the same forum as one about Kadeer.

"We have no interest in meddling with the festival's freedom of artistic expression," Jia said in a statement released by his Xstream Pictures production company. "But the riot in Urumqi happened only two weeks ago. I have to be careful not to let my actions tarnish the people who died."

Other directors have intimated that they pulled out of the Australian festival to avoid trouble with China's often heavy-handed State Administration of Radio, Film and TV.

Filmmaker Zhao, whose "Petition" focuses on aggrieved Chinese citizens fighting the system, said in a text message response to the Los Angeles Times, "I'm against any form of violence, but this case is very complicated."

Richard Moore, head of the film festival, told the Australian newspaper the Age that the Chinese consulate in Melbourne had asked him to cancel the showing of the Kadeer film.

"When I told them that I did not have to justify the film's inclusion, they became increasingly insistent and proceeded to list her crimes," Moore told the newspaper.

Once among the wealthiest businesswomen in China, Kadeer fled to the United States in 2005 after being imprisoned on charges of violating state secrecy laws.

As head of the World Uighur Congress and of the Uighur-American Assn., she is the most quoted representative of the Uighurs, a community concentrated in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. China has accused her of organizing demonstrations July 5 in Urumqi, which resulted in rioting that by official count left 197 dead and 1,600 injured.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

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