Film director Oliver Stone. Pic: AP.

By Kyle Mullin | @mulkyle

Oliver Stone has never been one to shy away from controversy, but the American director may have attained new heights of provocation at this year’s Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF) where he touched on one if China’s biggest taboos.  The outspoken auteur (who has helmed polarizing classics like Natural Born Killers and JFK), not only criticized China’s film industry during a panel discussion at the BJIFF on Wednesday, he also encouraged those movie makers to face the flaws of their nation’s most revered figure, Chairman Mao Zedong.

“Mao Zedong has been lionized in dozens and dozens of Chinese films, but never criticized. It’s about time…  You do that, you open up, you stir the waters and you allow true creativity to emerge in this country,” Stone said at a panel about international co-productions that was also attended by Alfonso Cuaron, the director of Gravity, and Frederick Huntsberry, the COO of Paramount Pictures.

The talk’s moderator attempted to change the subject, but Stone pressed on, saying that Chinese cinema shouldn’t be “protecting the people from their history.”

Many Chinese credit Mao Zedong with leading the country out of its primitive dynastic eras 50 years ago and onto a more assured, prosperous path. But critics (quietly at home and vehemently abroad) say the Chairman’s policies killed millions of his own people. The latter takes issue with “The Great Leap Forward”, an agricultural experiment that lead to mass famines, and the rigid Communist class reforms that displaced, impoverished and stigmatized millions more.

Such critiques are banned from films and television in favor of state approved nationalist narratives. And that gung-ho, state approved fare has often been dismissed as propaganda by foreign studios and audiences. Experts say that maybe one of the reasons why Chinese cinema – despite a few recent festival wins with films such as A Touch of Sin and  Black Coal, Thin Ice, and contributions to huge American blockbusters like Iron Man 3 – has mostly failed to break through on the global market. And that dilemma, along with a desire for fresh solutions, is part of what prompted the festival organizers to call on Stone, even if the director offered more than what they bargained for.

“He has had a lot of success in, and a lot of opinions about, international co-productions,” says Zhang Wan, one of the festival’s publicists, adding: “We wanted to invite him so he could give some suggestions about how to better link Chinese film production to the world.”

While Stone’s call to tear down the Mao mythology may outrage some Mandarin movie buffs, others say his edgy comments would have raised few eyebrows at BJIFF.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire episode was prompted by persons in the Chinese government, or state-owned entertainment enterprises to provoke a discussion and start making positive changes,” says Peter Sallade, founder of the Independent Beijing International Movie Festival, the precursor to the current BJIFF. He adds that Stone’s controversial track record— from his much maligned ideas about the assassination of president Kennedy, to his fiery comments about the Jewish ‘domination’ of America’s policy on Iran— should have left BJIFF organizers without any doubts about the kind of guest they had invited.

Zhang denied that BJIFF used Stone as a mouthpiece for China’s reformist filmmakers, adding: “For me, and I can only speak for myself, I think Mr. Stone did not make those comments because festival directors or some Chinese people wanted him to say that. He is a professional director, and I think he just wanted to say something himself, rather than standing for some people.”

Zhang said she could not speak for the festival directors or on behalf of BJIFF itself, and attempts to reach the festival’s higher ups were not fruitful before press time. However, other Chinese film insiders also downplayed the notion that Stone was used as a proxy for frustrated local directors. Stanley Rosen, a professor at the US-China Institute and an expert about the Middle Kingdom’s film industry, said the director has already backed up his tough talk with plenty of action.

“Oliver Stone has wanted to make a film about Mao for many years,” Rosen said, adding that the director even considered a script focusing on the Chairman’s wife, Jiang Qing. But when it comes to these projects, the professor said Stone has never come close to calling ‘action.’ “I’ve met Zhang Xun, the head of international co-production in China. Although she will likely be stepping down in the not too distant future, she has tightened up the regulations for co-production under her watch.”

Rosen added that some of Stone’s comments at BJIFF may not have stemmed from his personal struggles with Chinese censors, but those of his Mandarin peers. The professor cites Feng Xiaogang (one of the Middle Kingdom’s most successful directors at the domestic box office), as a local filmmaker whose criticisms could rival Stone’s. Rosen said Feng has wanted to make a film about the famine, or as he puts it the “man-made disasters”, that followed “The Great Leap Forward.” However, he has only been permitted to shoot films about natural disasters like earthquakes. Rosen said such practices are unlikely to cease, regardless of complaints from Feng, Jia or Stone.

“Under Document No. 9, which was issued within the Party late last year but not openly published, seven perils were listed as threats to the Communist Party,” Rosen said of the  recent PRC policy, adding that  it listed “nihilistic criticisms of the Party’s traumatic past” as one of those seven threats. “That let everyone know that subjects such as the Cultural Revolution and a revised evaluation of Mao are still very much off limits as a subject for discussion, much less for film.”

Xie Xiaodong, a Beijing based screenwriter and producer of hit Chinese flicks like Invisible Killer, said policies like Document No. 9 have little to do with politics and censorship, and more to do the most deeply personal aspects of Chinese culture.

“After Mao and the Cultural Revolution, religion was banned in China. We don’t have Gods, so we make our leaders into Gods,” Xie said. “That’s very hard to change, but it has to, because the movies about our leaders show them as too perfect. Because we still have that kind of censorship, our films can’t be honest.”