Director Jia Zhangke Launches New Shanxi Film Academy in China

Chinese director Jia Zhangke has formally launched his new venture: a filmmaking school in his native Shanxi staffed by some of China’s top industry talent, including helmers Ning Hao and Bi Gan.

The Shanxi Film Academy was inaugurated in a ceremony presided over by Communist party officials and attended by major firms seeking synergies between the school’s future crop of filmmakers and their own thirst for new talent and content. It is affiliated with the existing Communication University of Shanxi, which trains many graduates to enter top media regulatory bodies like the State Administration of Radio and Television.

Official support for the new academy was repeatedly highlighted in both speeches and news coverage of the event. Little can be achieved in China at scale without strong government buy-in.

“The comprehensive thinking and strategic arrangements of the Shanxi Province Party Committee and government for the economic transformation of Shanxi has inspired us,” Jia said in a speech at the Saturday event, according to video footage. “As a filmmaker, I am also grateful for this opportunity that allows me to do even more for cinema.”

The school is Jia’s latest attempt build up the ecosystem and pipelines to foster new talent that China still sorely lacks, now that the Pingyao Intl. Film Festival that he co-founded is running on more solid ground.

His clout and vision, paired with the efforts of co-founder and former Venice head Marco Muller, helped the small, nascent festival grow into one of the most professionally run and internationally minded in the country, as well as one of the few focused on showcasing young talent.

Jia stepped down from the festival in a surprise announcement at the conclusion of its fourth year last October, presumably in part to focus on the new academy. “I should’ve left [the festival] earlier and begun to groom a new team to take over, so that [it] can get rid of ‘Jia Zhangke’s shadow,’” he told the press at the time. It will now by run by the local city government, raising questions about its future reputation.

An Illustrious Faculty

Jia himself will preside over the Shanxi Film Academy as its first dean, and top filmmakers will join him as heads of departments, “distinguished experts” and visiting professors.

So far, the list of participants includes about a dozen names, a number of whom are Jia’s long-time collaborators.

They are: top directors Ning Hao; Bi Gan; Li Ruijun (“Walking Past the Future,” “Fly with the Crane”); Zhang Yibai; production designer Huo Tingxiao (“House of Flying Daggers,” “Hero”); Hong Kong cinematographer and director Nelson Yu Lik-wai; veteran actor Zhang Yang; screenwriters Yuan Yuan (“Go Away Mr. Tumor”) and Gu Zheng, a frequent collaborator of Jia’s (assistant director on “Platform” and “Xiao Wu”; writer of “People Mountain People Sea”); producer-writer-director Lei Jianjun; editor Lin Xudong, another frequent Jia collaborator (“Ash is Purest White,” “A Touch of Sin,” “24 City”); and sound designer Shen Jianqin (“East Palace, West Palace”). Bi Gan and Li Ruijun are themselves both alums of the Communications University of Shanxi.

Representatives from a half dozen Chinese firms attended the opening ceremony to sign a “Letter of Cooperative Intent” that laid out plans for future “multi-level and in-depth” collaboration. This will occur in the realms of practical training, film and TV project development, and distribution, as well as assistance with internships and job placement later down the line.

The companies present included Alibaba Entertainment, Maoyan Entertainment, the iQiyi Film Center, Momo Pictures, Guangzhou-based production firm Sublime Media (“The White Storm 2: Drug Lords”), and Beijing-based production company Wishart Culture and Media.

The new academy’s operations will span three locations, two of them still unbuilt. Students will move between the Communications University campus in Jinzhong city and two new training bases: one in Fenyang city and another in Pingyao, both about an hour and half’s drive away. Construction has begun at the Fenyang base and is expected to conclude this summer.

The small county-level town of Fenyang is Jia’s birthplace, as well as the setting of a number of his works, including “Xiao Wu,” “Platform,” and “Mountains May Depart.”

Building a “Culturally Strong Province”

Lou Yangsheng, Shanxi’s provincial party committee secretary, presided over the opening ceremony, pulling back red drapery to unveil an official plaque and ceremoniously issuing letters of appointment to Jia and other professors. Shanxi governor Lin Wu was also present, along with four other top leaders and helmer Li Shaohong, head of the Chinese Film Directors’ Association.

“For six province-level leaders including party secretary Lou and governor Lin to attend such an inaugural ceremony is unique in Chinese film history,” said Zhang Hong, deputy director of the China Film Association.

For authorities in one of China’s largest coal-producing provinces, hosting a school affiliated with top creative talent offers a chance to re-brand and turn away from the polluting industry that is being de-emphasized as Beijing seeks to reduce its carbon footprint.

The academy will play an important role in “building a culturally strong province, developing the culture and tourism industries, and promoting the economic transformation” of Shanxi, Lou said amidst a televised inspection tour.

He called the academy’s establishment “a significant event in the history of Shanxi’s higher education development,” telling students to study hard to create great works that “record the times, eulogize the people, and pay tribute to national heroes.”

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