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China’s 15th FIRST Film Festival Highlights Women’s Voices

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The 2021 edition of FIRST International Film Festival attracted deserved attention for its inclusion of a new section paying tribute to women’s lives and experiences. This year was the event’s 15th edition and was held from July 25 to August 2.

The film section, titled ‘First Frame,’ was founded this year and featured short films, narrative films, and documentaries focusing on the stories of women, aiming to boost female perspectives in China’s film industry.

A jury selected six films for inclusion in the category, including three feature films — Lady Bug, A Chat, River of Salvation, and three short films — Step into the River, Self Scratch, An Excessive DayThe section was co-presented by the event committee and the French luxury house Chanel.

Step into the River was created by female animator Ma Weijia (pictured above) and was also screened earlier this summer at ShortFest 2021 in Palm Springs, California.

As one of China’s most important annual film events right now, FIRST International Film Festival has been held for 10 years in Xining, the capital of Northwest China’s Qinghai province. From humble beginnings as a small school event, the festival has transformed into a significant arthouse film showcase that critics, filmmakers, and celebrities have praised for its bold vision. 

Unlike its counterparts in Shanghai or Beijing, FIRST pays attention to the debut films and early works of young talents. Wen Muye, the director behind the hit film Dying to Survive, first made waves at the festival in 2011 after winning best picture of the year for his short film Stone.

This is not the first time the local government-backed event has featured films focused on women’s experiences in modern society. In 2019, the feminist film Send Me to the Clouds, directed by female filmmaker Teng Congcong, was part of the special screening section. 

Send Me to the Clouds

Send Me to the Clouds. Image via IMDb

Wang Yishu, the female film curator of FIRST, first mentioned the female film section last year in an interview with the state-backed newspaper The Beijing News. She also pointed out that the proportion of female applicants has risen over the past two years. 

Meanwhile, China’s female filmmakers are getting more attention as feminist movements like #MeToo increased motivations to highlight the female experience and uplift women creatives at film festivals.

Moviegoers are also embracing films directed by women, like Hi, Mom and Sister.

Hi, Mom, directed by Jia Lin, is the top-grossing movie this year, bringing in more than 5.4 billion RMB (830 million USD). The film also helped Jia become the world’s highest-grossing female filmmaker, ousting Patty Jenkins at the top of the list.

Despite recent progress, China’s film scene is still lacking women’s voices. Only 10% of the Chinese films directed by female filmmakers from 2017 to April 2021 were released in cinemas, according to a report conducted by The One International Women’s Film Festival.

CORRECTION: This article has been edited to clarify that the FIRST International Film Festival has only been held in Xining for 10 years.

Cover image via Weibo

Wang Junjie
    Wang Junjie is a Shanghai-based writer and storyteller who originally hails from South-Central China’s Hunan province. He covers fashion, culture and society.