The 10 Conditions of Love, a documentary about exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, hit headlines worldwide in July, dragging the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) into a maelstrom of controversy.
MIFF's decision to screen the film and host a Q&A with Kadeer drew condemnation from the Chinese consulate in Australia, which demanded the doc be withdrawn. The festival's refusal led to its website being hijacked and crashed by Chinese hackers – a move that focused global attention on the film. But, recalls producer John Lewis, the doc nearly didn't make the line-up.
"We were very lucky," he says. "I pestered them and pestered them, and (MIFF director) Richard Moore took the rough cut home on the last weekend that he devoted to settling his programme, and he decided to give it a run."
[sb - rdf 5] Weeks before the festival, violent clashes erupted between Uyghurs, Chinese state police and Han Chinese residents in the city of Ürümqi, resulting in 197 deaths. The Chinese government claimed the riots were planned from abroad by the World Uyghur Congress, of which Kadeer is president.
"It was probably the worst civil event since Tiananmen Square," says Lewis. "I thought, ‘This now situates us firmly in the news cycle,' and I said to Richard, ‘If you put this on it'll shift your festival out of the arts pages into the news pages.' The moment the Chinese saw the festival guide and that the film was in it, all hell broke loose."
The controversy has been a mixed blessing for the 53-minute documentary, which was produced on a budget of around A$130,000 (US$111,250) and funded predominantly by Screen Australia and Film Victoria.
[John Lewis - ] On the one hand, the exposure has been phenomenal. "We went straight to cinema release in Australia after the festival, literally within days, in Melbourne," says Lewis. "A documentary like this would never normally hope to get a cinema release."
On the other hand, the threat of Chinese ire is creating difficulties.
Video-on-demand website Joining The Docs secured online rights to the film in July, however, it has yet to upload the doc for fear of a repeat of the attack that crippled the MIFF site. "We've got a duty of care to all our filmmakers," says Joining The Docs founder Tim Sparke. "Clearly, we can't show a film on our site if it's going to prevent our subscribers seeing other films."
He adds that the documentary will have to remain offline "until such time as our site has built-in security measures that will protect not just 10 Conditions but any film. When that will be, I can't say, but it's something that we're focusing a lot of our energies on at the moment."
[Tim Sparke - ] For London-based indie TVF International, which is handling worldwide distribution, the controversy is also posing problems. "It's created a lot of media interest but it hasn't translated into sales," admits senior acquisitions executive Zecki Gerloff. Despite positive feedback, broadcasters in Japan, South Korea and Canada have all declined the doc for fear of souring relations with Chinese broadcasters.
[sb - FM 09 Huggers] "They all rejected it for the same reasons: too sensitive, too poignant and too controversial," says Gerloff. "We hoped that the market would be a bit more welcoming. There is a lot of interest, but the decisions are having to go to the upper echelons of broadcasters. One shouldn't say that people are just scared of Chinese reaction, but that's certainly what we're experiencing."
Gerloff adds that part of the reason people are backing off from the doc is that China provides a number of international coproduction funds – at a time when international copro money is becoming harder to find. "People are more sensitive to China's needs at the moment," she adds. "It is frustrating to have such a good film but have it be so thoroughly scrutinised."
Nevertheless, TVF has sold the doc to Noga in Israel and Al Jazeera in the Middle East. And Lewis is confident an Australian sale is within grasp. "We're very optimistic we'll have a sale to ABC in Australia. That's under consideration now and I'm very confident it will happen," he says. "That has very serious earning consequences for us; we have a royalties collection system in Australia, called Screenrights, and it would lead to quite a substantial amount of money.
"If it gets a broadcast and we get a good result from Screenrights, that will probably make more money than all the other broadcasters put together. Plus, there's a tax break we'll be able to get access to, so we could actually do moderately well out of the film in the end."