Political tension over the deadly riots that struck northwest China has spilled into an unlikely venue: the Melbourne International Film Festival. Three Chinese directors announced they were pulling their works from the event to protest the inclusion of a documentary about a Uighur activist.
The Uighurs are a Turkic speaking, largely Islamic minority group concentrated in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. On July 5 several hundred Uighurs went on a rampage in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi. The violence left 197 people dead, most of them members of China's majority Han ethnic group. The Chinese government has placed the blame on Reibya Kadeer, an outspoken Uighur businesswoman and human rights activist who spent nearly six years in a Chinese jail and now lives in exile in the U.S.
Kadeer, who has denied any connection to the riots and accuses the Chinese state of economic, religious and cultural oppression of the Uighurs, is the subject of a documentary by Australian director Jeff Daniels. Entitled 10 Conditions of Love, the movie is showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), which begins July 24. Festival Director Richard Moore said that he refused demands by the Chinese Embassy to drop the film, and hung up on an official who called last week to insist he justify its inclusion. "MIFF stands firm by its decision to include the documentary in the program," Moore said in a written statement.
The decision to keep the film, and a likely appearance by Kadeer at its showing Sunday, prompted three Chinese directors to drop out. Jia Zhangke, who pulled his short film Cry Me A River, wrote the festival to say that most of the victims' families held Kadeer and the Uyghur World Congress exile association she heads responsible for the violence, China's state-run Xinhua News Service reported. Emily Tang, the director of Perfect Life, withdrew her film and cancelled a planned appearance. Director Zhao Liang, who spent a decade filming Petition, a dark and painful documentary about Chinese citizens who come to Beijing to file legal complaints about injustices in their home provinces, also pulled his work. Zhao declined an interview request from TIME, saying it "would be difficult" to discuss.
On Thursday prominent Chinese director Feng Xiaogang told Xinhua that he backed the decisions by his fellow filmmakers. He accused festival officials of failing to promote the event as an artistic and cultural exchange. "The Melbourne film festival organizers have turned it into a political drama by inviting Rebiya Kadeer, a political liar," he said. Festival director Moore apologized for the absence of mainland films. "As a festival we continue to aim to support a plurality of views and are disappointed that this action has been taken," he said.