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Chinese Reality #9: No 16. Barkhor South Street

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at the Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1996, dir. Duan Jinchuan)

No. 16 Barkhor South Street (1996, dir. Duan Jinchuan)

Today’s film:

Bajiao nanjie shiliu hao (No. 16 Barkhor South Street)

1996. China. Directed by Duan Jinchuan.

This state-approved documentary depicts, with extraordinary vividness, the everyday workings of a government committee that serves a neighborhood in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. The office implements official policy while managing religious and secular events. Following the documentary practices of Frederick Wiseman, the film captures the mechanisms of the institution through careful observation of interactions between bureaucrats and locals. There may be no other film that captures daily life in Tibet—or the relationships between Chinese social services and the citizenry—in such penetrating detail.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings: 

Duan Jinchuan takes a close look at the daily life of one of these “neighbourhood committees” (ju wei hui) that exist throughout China. As the committee is in Lhasa, however, a muted tension exists between the Chinese cadres or residents and the Tibetan citizens, which permeates the piece at all levels, linguistically, humanly and administratively. People come to the ju wei hui to sort out various problems: marital disputes and family squabbles, petty theft, robbery, delinquency, unemployment; they receive their political education from it; young policemen from the countryside arrive for training etc. Duan adopts the “fly-on-the-wall” technique; he never interferes, never asks questions, never comments. In spite of this, an acute form of social criticism seeps subtly and is particularly palatable in the last sequence, which records the grotesque preparation of the official ceremony celebrating China’s takeover of Tibet, in which the participants are given minute instructions about the political significance of what they are supposed to wear or where they’re supposed to pee.

Bérénice Reynaud,”Dancing with Myself, Drifting with My Camera: The Emotional Vagabonds of China’s New Documentary.” In Senses of Cinema, October 2003

Arguably, it is precisely this form of social role playing, and the muted ethnic tension that it hides, that here constitutes Duan Jinchuan’s object of study. The result, though, is that while nothing of what we see is staged, very little occurs that exceeds the roles defined for all participants by the institutional space that is the focus of the documentary.

Luke Robinson, Independent Documentary: From the Studio to the Street. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

Duan’s own residence of eight years in Lhasa in the 1980s, and his links with local Tibetan audio-visual and cultural groups, put him in a unique position to carry out this project. The result is also unique in that it comprises an unscripted record of the workings of the Chinese government at the grass-roots level and a picture of daily life in Tibet not written acording to the ideological requirements of either Beijing or Dharamsala.

Chris Berry, “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism.” From The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Zhang Zhen. Published by Duke University Press. 2007

Originally, I thought Duan Jinchuan’s No. 16 Barkhor South Street signaled the end of the search for utopia in distant places. For this film, which Duan made after living in Tibet for a number of years, neither romanticizes nor mysticizes Tibetan life but rather depicts ordinary Tibetans in their ongoing engagements with the Chinese government. Yet I have discovered that this utopian impulse never really ended but has continued under new conditions. Tibet still serves as a symbol of distant lands and as the sign of difference from modern civilization. Its significance has not waned, and it continues to provide a reverse shot perspective.”

Lu Xinyu, “Rethinking China’s New Documentary Movement: Engagement with the Social”. In Berry, Chris, Lu Xinyu and Lisa Rofel (eds), The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.


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