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Claus Mueller

Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


China: Issue Oriented Films

Access to films and documentaries covering health and other issues has been problematic for the Chinese audience. The introduction of digital platforms outside of theaters and film festivals offer a viewing medium that is not subject to uniform political censorship. As changes in the management of principal state organizations covering radio, film, television and print media have shown, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken a stronger and more directive role. In some cases, if the message of an issue-oriented production syncs with policies which are being adopted there is no censorship problem. In other cases, initial approval may be withheld on short notice if there is a powerful supportive response by the audience that challenges apparent policy failures. Filmmakers can circumvent the authorities by producing a film without prior permission. They do so by using direct contact with their target audience and share their productions through digital streaming platforms.

Two years ago, DYING TO SURVIVE directed by Wen Muye, a feature film with documentary overtones and based on a true story became a startling audience success. The film achieved a box office of $453 million and collected numerous local and international awards. Produced as a comedy drama, it reconstructs the story of Cheng Yong, a small Shanghai shop owner barely making a profit who faces financial problems. A large sum is needed for the medical treatment of his father whose doctor advises him to just let him die. He is approached by an individual pleading for drugs to treat his severe leukemia. Cheng accepts and becomes involved in smuggling Geliening from India, a generic Indian version of the expensive foreign drug Imatinib. Imatinib was not accessible for most Chinese but was needed by many sufferings from leukemia. With no affordable Chinese medication available, those using the foreign drug descend into poverty and eventual death. With the help of Indian and Chinese associates the shopkeeper Cheng builds a supply network selling the generic drug and helps to save the lives of close to 1000 people. DYING TO SURVIVE had a strong audience response because the film makers tuned into a widely discussed problem, the limited access to affordable medication for severe ailments and how to overcome the problem. The topic of the film also squared with the concern of official agencies over excessively priced foreign drugs, patent protection, and the absence of comparable local drugs. In this case, the Swiss company owning the rights to the expensive drug initiated the investigation in Shanghai over the sale of the counterfeit generic drug but also sued Indian agencies for patent infringement.  During the trial of the shop keeper the defense admitted his guilt but argued that saving lives was more important than generating profits. What the film conveys is that overpriced foreign drugs without an inexpensive alternative force people to engage in crime to cope with their ailments.


In 2015 a former Chinese television professional self-funded and directed UNDER THE DOME, an environmental documentary on the problems of air pollution. Chai Jing was motivated to produce the film because she developed complications during her pregnancy that were caused by the polluted environment, she lived in. Using her footage, interviews with coal and steel companies responsible for the excessive pollution, and discussions with officials failing to act, Chai King provided a harsh but honest critique of governmental agencies and the absence of effective regulations. The documentary opened on several major platforms on February 28th  2015 and reached a public of about 300 million viewers within three days of its release. By March 1st all material about the documentary was withdrawn from the websites and one week later UNDER THER DOME was completely pulled from circulation by the  publicity department of the CCP, the very same  agency that had supported  the production of the film and had it shown on its flagship digital platform. Initial reaction to her documentary included positive media reviews and praise by the minister for environmental protection. The film was rapidly withdrawn because the enthusiastic response of the audience generated too much pressure for politicians. Close to seventy five percent of internet viewers expressed that their views on pollution had changed and that corporate and governmental officials should be held accountable.

Over a period of eight years the film maker Jiang Nengjie recorded the existence of coal miners and those digging for rare metals in illegal mines in Hunan’s mountain tops. Film also depicts the lives of the miner’s families in a small village. Jiang placed a special focus on several miners suffering from a fatal lung disease caused by the inhalation of coal dust over several years.  It is an occupational affliction that has no medical solution. This two-part documentary provides a superbly filmed portrait of the miners at work and at home. Most miners spend only a small part of their year at home unless they are incapacitated by the disease, and if so live out their lives in village until death reaches them. Entitled MINERS, THE HORSEKEEPER, AND PNEUMOCONIOSIS, the documentary was completed by Jiang Nengjie in. The viewer is exposed to illegal work in deep unstable mine shafts which frequently collapse, primitive tools used by the miners, their attempts to circumvent official inspections and the concerns and aspiration they share. In the village we meet their families, view the struggle for survival by the diseased, and learn about the paucity of health care and support received from official agencies. The strong support for miners from their families and the celebration of holidays are also shown. Jiang does not provide any commentaries or political statements. Rather we gain knowledge about the conditions from his visual documentations and what the individuals in the documentary have to say, including members of their family. They offer some comments about corruption and the absence of officials taking care of the problems depicted. The documentary was produced without any official support while Jiang was making a living as a commercial video maker. Jiang reached his audience by listing information about the film on Douban. Douban is a prominent social networking platform which has millions of registered users and visitors. Jiang posted information how his production can be accessed without paying for it. Among those that viewed it, thousands listed supportive comments on Weibo, a huge Chinese microblogging website, with tens of thousands approving of the documentary.

As the review of exposure of these productions show, the discussion of Chinese film censorship must be qualified by considering the complexity of Chinese politics, the impact of digital distribution technologies, and the ingenuity of filmmakers reaching audiences. There is a persistence of art under all circumstances.


Claus Mueller



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