LOS ANGELES — In celebrity wattage and as a showcase for the art of cinema, the Palm Springs International Film Festival has not garnered the attention typically bestowed upon similar carnivals at Cannes, Sundance or even, say, Toronto. But the Palm Springs festival has now earned a different kind of laurel: a bona fide diplomatic incident.
China formally told the festival this week that two Chinese films were being withdrawn from its program in protest of the scheduled screening of a documentary about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. While Chinese officials told the festival’s director that the filmmakers themselves had decided to withdraw their state-financed works, many China experts believe that it is the state sending a message, rather than the individuals.
There is added intrigue over the more prominent of the two films that were withdrawn from the Palm Springs festival: “City of Life and Death” (also known as “Nanjing! Nanjing!”), a critically acclaimed fictionalized account of atrocities committed by the Japanese occupiers of Nanjing in 1937. Written and directed by Lu Chuan, one of China’s top box office successes, the film has drawn criticism in China for what some people there have called its sympathetic portrayal of Japanese characters.
Tibet has long been a cause célèbre in Hollywood, particularly among actors and some prominent filmmakers. At the same time, the big movie studios, which are all part of international corporate conglomerates that are trying to do business in China, in recent years have appeared to steer clear of major projects on Tibet that would inflame tensions and threaten their interests there.
National Geographic Entertainment announced in August that it had acquired the North American distribution rights for “City of Life and Death” and that the film would be released in theaters in 2010. But people involved in that deal said that a formal agreement was never signed, leaving National Geographic on the sidelines of the current dispute. The company said it still intends to release the film in theaters later this year.
The current wrangle is only the most recent protest by Chinese officials that the arts, and film specifically, are being used as a weapon to meddle in their internal affairs. In August, two American filmmakers were blocked from traveling to China to present their documentary about the more than 5,000 children in Sichuan Province who died when a 2008 earthquake caused numerous schools to collapse. Computer hackers and demonstrators took aim at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia in July to protest its screening of a documentary about a leader of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region of northwest China, where some 200 people were killed in ethnic violence last summer. And at last fall’s Frankfurt Book Fair, a diplomatic struggle emerged over the fair’s invitation to two dissident Chinese writers to speak at its official program honoring China.
Darryl Macdonald, the director of the Palm Springs festival, said in an interview that the Chinese consul general in Los Angeles traveled to the desert city on Wednesday. The official told him that the directors of the two films, rather than the Chinese government, which financed the films, had decided that they would not allow their work to be screened unless the festival canceled its scheduled showing of “The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom.”
The Chinese officials “repeatedly said the assertions presented in ‘The Sun Behind the Clouds’ were all lies, and they reminded us that the United States government had an official position that Tibet is a part of China,” Mr. Macdonald said. “I told them that we have freedom of expression in this country, and that we would not allow any foreign country to dictate what films we should or should not play.”
Officials at the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday and Friday.
Some American experts on China’s political and cultural atmosphere say they doubt that the filmmakers decided without prompting to withdraw the films. The second film is a comedy titled “Quick, Quick, Slow,” directed by Ye Kai. The film’s producer, Zhang Lanxin, had been expected to attend the festival.
Stanley Rosen, the director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California, said in an interview that his experience with Lu Chuan, which includes having dinner with the filmmaker when he was writing the script for “City of Life and Death,” makes him certain that the withdrawal of the film “was basically a decision of the Chinese government.”
“There is no way that he could continue having his films in international festivals and be successful in China” without succumbing to pressure to have his film withdrawn, given that the government financed the film and must approve all Chinese films that are exported, Dr. Rosen said.
The Associated Press published excerpts of a telephone interview with Mr. Lu on Thursday in which he said he “unconditionally accepted” the decision to withdraw his movie.
“This incident involves national interest,” Mr. Lu told the A.P. “National interests trump everything. When it comes to national unity, I think the attitude of all Chinese is the same.” Asked if the withdrawal of the films interfered with artistic freedom, Mr. Lu said, “It’s really, really hard for me to answer that question.”
One American filmmaker who does business in China, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his business interests there, said he believes that the directors could have asked for their films to be withdrawn knowing that not to do so would endanger their careers in China. “We have this belief in America that film tells truth to power,” the filmmaker said. “I think the Chinese directors were looking at it as they didn’t want any guilt by association.”
Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that Chinese President Hu Jintao once served as Communist Party chief for Tibet. “Tibet is an issue that is especially neuralgic for Beijing,” he said, adding that he would have been surprised if Chinese officials had not objected to the film.
Dr. Rosen said that “City of Life and Death” has attracted some criticism in China, because it portrays one Japanese character who was part of the occupation force as having a bout of conscience over Japanese atrocities and eventually killing himself.
In a statement issued Thursday, National Geographic said the withdrawal of the film from the festival was “unfortunate,” adding, “We’re proud of the film and we hope people will see this important movie when it opens in theaters later this year.”