Thursday, March 31, 2011


The 21st-century marriage of the digital revolution with China's bid for First World status and the resulting collateral damage, has been a boon for documentary filmgoers outside China. Cheap, portable digital technology has enabled an unprecedented flowering of documentary films about this country. Sadly, these films will probably remain unseen by ordinary Chinese given their subject matter and outspoken criticism of authorities' neglect and mistreatment of minorities, victims of tragedy and artists. Shot with low budgets and under the radar of government surveillance, these works earn the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts new series title "Fearless: Independent Chinese Documentaries."

Documentary film fans who missed distributor dGenerate Films' ground-breaking series "China Underground" at VIZ Cinema back in December, or New York's MoMA Documentary Fortnight in February, have a chance to catch two works from the VIZ program plus newer titles, starting this weekend for three weeks at YBCA.

Many of the six works featured in "Fearless" are long. I like SFIFF's head programmer Rachel Rosen's characterization of a recent overall trend in film-festival films: they "find their own length." The subjects of these works have convoluted histories that need to be told. Conventional running times don't do them sufficient justice, and the patient viewer at any rate soon finds herself deeply and rewardingly immersed.

Bring sustenance and maybe a cushion when the series kicks off midday Sunday with its longest, most grueling and finest film Karamay (2009). I usually save the best film for last, but I can’t wait to recommend this first in the series which cries out for an audience willing to endure its wholly justified 6-hour-plus running time. Everybody in China knows about the "12/08/94 Incident" in which 323 people died, 288 of them schoolchildren, in a fire that broke out in the cheaply constructed and illegally modified Friendship Theatre in the oil company town of Karamay in far northwestern Xinjiang province. Because the children died obeying instructions to remain seated so that inebriated Communist Party cadres could escape first, the government hastily assured the bereaved that the victims would receive "national martyr" status—one of many promises that it didn't keep. The children didn't even receive death certificates, which left them nameless. Instead, the parents of the dead children were subjected to firings, surveillance, ostracism, arrest and even beatings when they conducted their own investigation and petitioned for reparations. Director Xu Xin visits the victims' families on the 13th anniversary of the tragedy and witnesses their still explosive rage and recriminations.

The fourth hour of the film is devoted to the extraordinary soliloquy of one father, who comes closest to positing an overarching conspiracy theory for the tragedy. In indirect language whose import gains devastating power, he methodically indicts all the responsible parties in the incident, drawing a portrait of a China that has broken down at every possible level. This is politically engaged cinema at its most appalling best—a must-see.

Ghost Town (2008) is also about people living on the geographical and ethnic margins of Chinese society—this time in Yunnan province near the border with Burma. In an online interview, director Zhao Dayong said that this film poses the "cause" that would lead to the "consequence" of his 2006 film
Street Life (not screening at YBCA): a town gradually being abandoned by its inhabitants for the city because they can no longer scrape together a living there. The film follows citizens still making an effort: father-son Christian preachers, a young trucker in love with a girl about to be sold to another man, a pair of alcoholic brothers wearing out the patience of their womenfolk, and finally a 12-year-old boy abandoned by his parents who traps birds, cooks fry bread and hauls rocks for a living but still finds time to play like a child or sit quietly in a church pew. Its dwindling population shows plenty of life for a ghost town, notably in an enthralling shot of a church congregation wearing colorful knit caps singing a hymn, which rivals the pan shot of boat passengers in the opening sequence of Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life.

1428 (Du Haibin, 2009)—Along with Ghost Town, 1428 screened at VIZ. Its title referring to the time at which the 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck, this film refutes the implicit conclusion of the recent Aftershock, a melodrama bookended by the 1976 Tangshan and 2008 Sichuan temblors and China's top-grossing locally made film. In that fiction film's feel-good ending, the heroine whose family was torn apart in the earlier quake joins government rescue operations in Sichuan with full confidence that this time they have gotten it right. 1428 puts the lie to that complacent and dangerous attitude, as it details governmental neglect and abuse of the victims and survivors of Sichuan first 10 days after the quake and again 7 months later.

Disorder (Huang Weikai, 2009) is the most hyperbolic of these documentaries, aptly called by Chris Chang "a city symphony from hell." In grainy black and white footage taken from dozens of videographers, it cross-cuts various happenings in Guangzhou seemingly at the same time: the confiscation of contraband bear and anteater parts from a supermarket; a motorist pleading with a semiconscious man on the road to accept a monetary settlement before the cops tow his car; a diner demanding satisfaction for a roach found in his noodles; a man threatening to jump from a bridge and another dancing in traffic; pigs running loose on the highway; a baby found abandoned in a trash-filled lot; a brawl resulting from a truck about to be towed. The overwhelming impression conveyed by this film is a China in utter chaos, broken down at every level. Even at its bleakest it's a caustic tribute to the spirit of the Chinese people, for whom absurdity has become a way of life but who will not get to see this on video if the government can help it.

04/01/11 UPDATE: YBCA's Film/Video Curator Joel Shepard has confirmed that they will allow "sustenance" in the screening room for the screening of Karamay.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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