Chinese Documentaries at IDFA Narrow in on Character-Driven Narratives
by Karin Chien
Billed as the largest documentary festival in the world, IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, inhabits the city every November. It appears in Amsterdam's underwater walkways, in multiplexes, on street corners, in grand theaters and along the city’s canals. I attended the festival for the first time this year. I set out with a mission to watch every film about China made by a Chinese filmmaker showing at the festival. It turned out easier than expected. There were 4 Chinese films in a lineup of near 400 films.
The most interesting Chinese film screening at the festival turned out to Ballad of Roaming Spirits, by longtime documentary makers Kai Jia and Li Xiaofeng, making its World Premiere in the Luminous section. The beautifully photographed cinema verité film felt like a throwback to independent documentary making in the 2000s and early 2010s in China. The film focuses on a small hamlet, in rural China. The lens is often trained on a shepherd and a healer, and the film takes on the rhythms of their days. We spend time inside their one-room homes, where they spend time with their sheep and their patients. The healer reminisces about his wife, whom his family bought from a trafficker, and her subsequent flight from the family. The filmmakers hold and create space for their characters’ rich and complex realities, weaving a cinematic presence meant to respect the currents of fate and destiny. This is slow cinema at its most engaging.
Screenings of Smog Town by first-time filmmaker Meng Han were well attended, selling out several times. The film, a unique Dutch-Chinese-Korean co-production, made its world premiere in IDFA’s Competition for First Appearance section. It’s a verité documentary shot on the frontlines of the war against air pollution. Specifically, in Langfang, a suburb downwind from Beijing that places repeatedly in the top 10 most polluted cities in China. The film is less about the town and more so about its environmentalists, aka “smog cops,” working the air pollution beat. A scene at the beginning sets the stakes - central government officials threaten municipal leaders with robust punishment if air quality goals are not met. In the film, Langfang trends towards becoming China’s most polluted city, and the camera pushes in on tempers and stress fraying city officials. Langfang’s smog cops grow desperate. We see them busting small-time spray paint shops and lecturing families on burning coal. By the end, they’re hosing down streets and covering landfills with netting in helpless attempts to lower the town’s particulate reading.
Air pollution in China is political. It poses arguably the greatest threat to political power. Simply because smog is visible. The Beijing government has long been rumored to manipulate reported pollution numbers. In 2018, in the midst of Trump’s trade war, controls were loosened to ignite production and economic growth. Beijingers gave the returning smog a nickname - “the smell of the trade war.” Smog Town doesn’t address these contextual factors; instead it narrows in on the daily strains of Langfang’s smog cops. Along with Wang Jiuliang’s Plastic China, which tackles Beijing’s black market landfills by filming a family living in one, Smog Town belongs to a growing genre of character-driven films about China’s environmental issues.
Our Time Machine is a purely character-driven documentary, listed here as a China-US production making its Netherlands premiere in the Best of the Fests section. The directing duties are shared by Taiwanese-American veteran filmmaker S. Leo Chiang and Chinese first-time feature filmmaker Yang Sun. The film follows the artist Maleonn, who is driven to create an extravagant puppet show for his father, a former Peking Opera director, who is slowly losing his memory. The film immerses audiences in artistic process, creating an incredible aesthetic to tell its story. We follow Maleonn as he tries to raise funding, as he loses sleep over the demands of his artistic creation, as he witnesses the sacrifices his art demands of family members. Context, intentionally or unintentionally, is elided. In telling Maleonn’s origin story, his mother jokes that the manual labor in their Cultural Revolution work camp was so unbearable, she got pregnant to escape work.
Yet the film allows for a more layered reading. It’s an easy leap to viewing the father-son story as an analogy for China’s loss of historical memory and its attempt to replace it with pageantry and fantastical spectacles. As with the son’s puppet time machine, current generations access the past only through imagination. The puppet-theater play is infused with a fabulist aesthetic, similar to what runs through the best of recent independent Chinese films. Films like The Widowed Witch turn to magical realism to fathom China’s surreal reality.
Smog Town and Our Time Machine make clear the invisible line that Chinese documentaries, made in and for China, must navigate. A film like One Child Nation, making its Dutch premiere and screening in the Best of Fests section, is made for American audiences by American producers. The film stomps on that invisible line. It channels outrage for China’s violations against such Western-identified values as right to privacy and free will. The film won the Grand Jury documentary prize at Sundance, which may be a first for a Chinese-language film, right before the awards host gushed over the cuteness of the two (female) directors, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang. It was a stunning comment for a film whose brand is outrage.
I saw this film on the Amazon small screen. I’ve also seen other films made in China about the one child policy, including the extraordinary MOTHERS, which dGenerate Films distributes. Mothers was released while the policy was still in effect. Inhabiting the film’s rage perhaps requires the shock of confronting these policies in human detail for the first time. The filmmakers don’t reference Mothers or other films; their rage and focus are personal. The film follows its co-director, Nanfu Wang, questioning her allegiance to Chinese policy when she lived in China, and then confronting her mother, her aunt, and village officials whose job it was to implement policy by forcing abortions and sterilizations upon women. Further, it includes close-up images of aborted female fetuses suspended in liquid. We see images of female babies left on the side of the road. It extends into narratives about families and state-run orphanages that collaborated in trafficking female babies to the States. The film pushes, urges its viewer to rage, ending with no choice but condemnation.