Toronto filmmaker’s work pulled from Chinese festival for ‘political reasons’

A Toronto-based filmmaker says she was accepted and then rejected from a major Chinese film festival, with organizers in Beijing blaming “political reasons.”

MajaZdanowski told CBC Toronto the rejection wasn’t because of the film’s content. Her first feature-length film, In God I Trust, focuses on racism, religion and gun violence in the United States and had been accepted to the Beijing International Film Festival.

Zdanowski said she went from being excited to devastated in the span of 48 hours. 

“It would have been an amazing opportunity for me to showcase the talent that we have here in Canada,” the independent filmmaker said. 

I want people to know that art and filmmaking and expressing yourself should have nothing to do with what’s happening with political tensions between countries.– Maja Zdawnowski

Zdanowski’s rejection comes during a tense time for Canada-China relations. Recently, China halted canola shipments from this country and detained two Canadians working abroad — moves that came after Canadian authorities detained Meng Wanzhou, the vice-president of the Chinese technology firm Huawei.

In the first email exchange viewed by CBC Toronto, one of the film festival’s organizers said they liked Zdanowski’s film and apologized for having to remove it from the festival, but only said it was due to “political reasons.”

In a follow-up email Friday afternoon, they provided a more thorough explanation:

“We like this film very much. We have made every effort, but as you know, the censorship in China is very strict and the standards are constantly changing. We tried many ways to get the film through, but failed. It’s not the film itself that has political problems, it’s going abroad (I’m sure you’ve heard about Huawei). So we are very sorry.”

CBC Toronto has also reached out to the Chinese consulate for more information about why the film was pulled. 

‘My passion is telling stories’

In God I Trust follows three people in a small town in northern Idaho whose stories become intertwined. It touches on heavy subjects like racism, religion and politics.

Zdanowski self-funded the film.

“I just don’t understand why they would accept and then deny, because it has nothing to do with the actual film itself,” she said.

“My passion is telling stories, and it shouldn’t be stopped because of some political tensions between countries,” she said.

‘The bilateral relationship is still very, very tense’

Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and an expert on China and southeast Asia, said was likely canceled not because of its subject matter, but because the festival organizers feared backlash from the central government for including a Canadian film.

“[Local agencies] are afraid of the authorities. They do not want to be seen as doing anything that may defy central orders because they want to protect their own position, otherwise they might be punished if this is seen as an act of defiance,” she said.

Due to ongoing political tensions, Wong says Canadians working in China or with Chinese organizations may continue to encounter issues.

“Any Canadians who [are] thinking about doing things in China should be prepared for this sort of nuisance when the bilateral relationship is still very, very tense,” she said.

Zdanowski says her experience as an immigrant — she was born in Poland before her family was forced to flee to Austria, then South Africa and finally Canada — inspired her film.

She’s still eager for it to be seen.

In God I Trust has been accepted into several other festivals, including the Beverly Hills Film Festival and European Independent Film Festival in Paris.

But Zdanowski says she’s still disappointed politics appear to have blocked a wider release.

“I want people to know that art and film making and expressing yourself should have nothing to do with what’s happening with political tensions between countries,” she said.