NY Times SPARK and THE OBSERVER Review: A Filmmaker’s Past and China's.
Original review here.
A pair of documentaries serve as an introduction to Hu Jie, a documentarian whose films memorialize the horrors of the Mao era. By Ben Kenigsberg
Back-to-back viewings of “Spark,” a documentary by the Chinese filmmaker Hu Jie, and “The Observer,” a portrait of Hu and his work, are likely to convince you of something Hu’s mother says in the second film. “He won’t suck up to anybody,” she explains of her son. “He just documents things as they really are.” Icarus Films has released the movies as a pair. A major Chinese documentarian who, as Ian Johnson wrote this week in The New York Times, is nevertheless not well known in his home country, Hu is a self-taught filmmaker with a particular interest in memorializing the horrors of the Mao era. Because of government pressure in China, Johnson’s reporting indicates, it is difficult for Hu’s films to be shown there. “The Observer,” a low-key, endearing profile by the Italian director Rita Andreetti, begins by describing the shuttering of a film festival in Beijing in 2014. The festival’s founder, Li Xianting, says in an interview that the event was canceled because of “Spark.”
This is apparently not the first time Hu’s blacklisting (his word) has halted a festival. According to “The Observer,” a festival in Yunnan wanted to show Hu’s “Though I Am Gone,” about a middle-school vice principal whose students beat her to death during the Cultural Revolution. Andreetti, who uses lengthy clips from Hu’s films throughout “The Observer,” openly confronts the censorship. Before excerpting “Though I Am Gone,” Andreetti displays a title card: “Here is the reason why” the 2007 festival could not take place.
On camera, Hu takes an upbeat attitude toward his reception. Even though his films cannot be shown in festivals, he says, academics and young people still find ways to bring them to schools, giving him a “very wide viewership.”
Hu studied painting before picking up a video camera, but unlike his artwork, “Spark” has an unpolished look, retaining almost amateurish imperfections of lighting and sound. The film takes its title from an underground publication put out in response to Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Its writers, who came out of universities, drew attention to mass starvation and what they saw as Maoists’ failure to deliver true social-democratic reforms.
The documentary, more of an oral history than an argument, combines the remembrances of former Spark writers with voice-over readings from the publication. It also makes time for the stories of the deceased, like Du Yinghua, a county-level official who, we’re told, was executed for sympathizing with the students. “Spark” is demanding viewing, but it is difficult not to admire the bravery of its subjects. Tan Chanxue, a Spark member, remembers being tried in public for her actions. “I felt calm,” she says. “It’s just a few years in prison.”