Chinese government authorities have failed to stop a film on Tibet from being shown at a major international film festival in Palm Springs, California this week despite pressure on festival organizers. In protest, the Chinese government withdrew two Chinese films from the festival, and it is now attempting to spin the decision as having been taken by one of the Chinese film directors.

The Director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), which runs from January 5-18, Darryl Macdonald, released a formal statement yesterday that said: “After meeting with representatives from the Chinese government regarding their request to cancel our screenings of ‘The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom,’ we have respectfully declined their request. I’m saddened that the Chinese film authorities have chosen to withdraw their films from PSIFF, as the Festival is an international cultural event whose mandate is to present a wide cross section of perspectives and points of view. That said, we cannot allow the concerns of one country or community to dictate what films we should or should not play, based on their own cultural or political perspective. Freedom of expression is a concept that is integral both to the validity of artistic events, and indeed, to the ethos of this country.”

According to yesterday’s edition of The Desert Sun, a local Palm Springs newspaper, the Chinese Cultural Attaché and other Chinese officials called the festival director and film programmers demanding that they withdraw the documentary about Tibet and the Dalai Lama by husband and wife team Tenzing Sonam, a Tibetan exile, and Ritu Sarin. The newspaper reported that Macdonald said he was also told by Chinese government officials that by including the Tibet film “he was going against the position of the U.S. government, which doesn’t recognize Tibet as independent of China, but Macdonald said he responded, ‘Sorry, this is an arts event and we believe in freedom of expression.’”

This isn’t the first time that the Chinese government has tried to exert pressure at an international film festival. In July Chinese hackers attacked the website of Australia’s biggest film festival over its decision to screen a documentary about the exiled Uighur activist, Rebiya Kadeer.

“Government constraints on freedom of expression within China are entrenched. Those who would exercise this inalienable and fundamental freedom by saying things that the Chinese government or Communist Party objects to – whether in film, on the internet or any public platform – can face criminal charges of ‘inciting subversion’ and other serious consequences. In this context, it is especially gratifying that private citizens outside China so clearly understand what is at stake. By refusing to bow to Chinese government intimidation, they stand up for those who risk much to establish a free and more open society in China,” said Mary Beth Markey, ICT Vice President for International Advocacy.

In a new spin on the story, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, today reports that Lu Chuan, the director of “City of Life and Death” (known in Chinese as “Nanjing! Nanjing!”), one of the two Chinese films, had himself made the decision to withdraw from the film festival. According to Xinhua, “Lu was informed Monday that ‘The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom’ would be screened during the festival and immediately notified his film’s distributor in North America of his quitting, Lu’s publicity assistant Wang Dan said. The India-produced documentary tells mainly of the Dalai Lama’s secessionist activities in 2008. Lu Chuan said, ‘All activities overseas of my film should serve the country’s interests and safeguard the national sovereignty and territorial integrity.’”

The Xinhua report contradicts a report yesterday from The Hollywood Reporter saying “State-run China Film Group had pulled ‘City of Life and Death’” from the Palm Springs International Film Festival to protest the event’s inclusion of a film about the Dalai Lama, director Lu Chuan said Wednesday.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lu said a “government department … demanded China Film pull the movie.” Lu said that it had been intimated to him “it had to do with Tibet and politics” but that he had “absolutely no knowledge of the film they’re talking about” and that had prompted his film’s withdrawal. Chinese director Ye Kai’s debut comedy “Quick, Quick, Slow” was the other Chinese film withdrawn from the festival.

According to The Desert Sun article, Lu had told The Hollywood Reporter on January 6 that “he has mixed feelings about the reaction of the Chinese government to his film. ‘On the one hand I’m very grateful to the film festival for giving my film greater exposure, on the other hand, when it comes to Tibet and politics, we directors have no choice but to stand together with our film company,’” Lu concluded.

In a written reaction today, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam said: “It is clear that the directors of these films had no choice in the matter and were as much victims of their government’s authoritarian policies as we, the intended targets, were meant to be. As China now feels emboldened enough to attempt to impose its will on independent cultural events in a country as powerful and as symbolic of the right to free speech and expression as the United States of America, we can begin to understand the extent of repression within its own borders. It is not surprising that even as the Chinese government was putting pressure on PSIFF to remove our film from its line-up, it imposed a six-year sentence on Tibetan filmmaker, Dhondup Wangchen, for making a film that showed the true feelings of Tibetans in Tibet about their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, and their situation under Chinese rule.”