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The Art of Survival in Modern Chinese Documentary

This piece is part of a series. As a small means of solidarity with curators, critics and creators, during this extraordinary moment of crisis and confinement, dGenerate Films is opening our doors to those interested in writing and engaging with our collection. Sunil Chauhan is the programmer of the Wavelength program at Deptford Cinema in London

by Sunil Chauhan

The effects of redevelopment as seen in China’s independent film output is one of the most commented-on. From Wang Bing to Jia Zhangke, this swift and total modernisation has given filmmakers plenty to work with, as well as a ready-made angle for critics. For some, this could be an opportunity to mine the aesthetic allure of rubble ruins (as seen in Li Ning’s Tape), but many Chinese documentary-makers have spent the last decade exploring the human cost of destruction, whether it be a by-product of urbanisation, natural disasters or tragic fatal accidents. Whether it’s the anticipation or aftermath of loss - of homes, work, social identity, community or history, these documentaries detail the incredulity, discontent and anger of those at the sharp end. They also depict the survival instinct of its protagonists, a deeply-held sense of justice and morality, and a bloody-minded quest to be heard, even when the odds of getting what they want are slim.

Karamay (Directed by XU Xin, 2010)

Raw testimonies from parents of 288 children that perished in a 1994 fire in the petrol mining town of the title, Karamay is a towering example of long-form documentary, helmed without ego by director Xu Xin. Patient and intense, its deceptively simple format – lightly edited interviews with people in their living rooms shot in black and white (only archive news footage is in colour) – gives the viewer a holistic idea of how the fire occurred and the exasperating cover-ups and suppression that followed. Relevant in light of similar fires such as 2017’s Grenfell disaster or last year’s Dhaka blazes, Xu mounts a frequently distressing portrait of neglect, fatal planning failures and a state aversion to responsibility: death certificates have yet to be issued for the children who lost their lives. It’s not hard to see why there is so much energy in these testimonies: this is the parents’ chance to finally tell their side of the story, one authorities would like to pretend didn’t happen (the film has been banned at home, while the site of the fire has been developed into a square), even if as one father says, it should be used as a learning opportunity to prevent future mistakes. As interviewees mitigate state criticisms with reiterations that they’re not against the CPC, concerns over the possible repercussions of airing their grievances on camera (for filmmaker and subject alike) are rarely far from the viewer’s mind. Necessarily demanding at six hours, as a vital testament to a callous state response and those left to pick up the pieces, Karamay never wastes a second.

Meishi Street (Directed by OU Ning, 2006)

Filmed in 2005 as Beijing was being reshaped for the Olympic Games, Meishi Street depicts some of the most obstinate resisters to urban regeneration, implicitly questioning the cost of hosting the games and the price of antiseptic urban centres. With their properties facing demolition as a result of streets being widened to accommodate visitors, residents of Meishi Street, a location close to Tiananmen Square, stubbornly campaign against city planners to keep bulldozers at bay: one man even sleeps with a knife in case demolition crews arrive at night. The most tenacious is restauranteur Zhang Jinli who films some footage himself, righteously unsatisfied with the compensation he’s being offered to relocate. The residents’ consciousness of their civic rights and determination to dispute developers (one describes the struggle to be heard like “shouting in your own room”) is what makes Meishi Street so rousing. It advances almost through a battle of banners between residents and the city’s own propagandist signage. If the outcome is inexorable, Zhang’s tears in a poignant, abruptly-cut final shot are made all the more brutal by the sight of an unseen operator bulldozing his home with mundane efficacy.

1428 (Directed by DU Haibin, 2009)

Charting the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake (its title comes from the exact time the biggest natural disaster in recent Chinese memory began) in Beichuan country, director Du Haibin’s doc follows residents waiting to be rehoused after their homes are destroyed. Wresting with victim-blaming (“people say we’re no good, that’s why our kids died… who cares about ordinary people?”) and inadequate relief efforts, some wonder why God didn’t stop the earthquake, while one shop owner contends that “even God can’t stop disasters”. They could also be speaking of bureaucrats, whom they suspect knew of the earthquake’s arrival, but whose response culminates in the requisitioning of land to erect cement factories. As survivors turn to selling their pigs and hunting for scrap metal, some become tour guides, offering photo opportunities at the site. “The dead are dead” one young man explains matter-of-factly. “We also have to live in reality. So be it. Don’t be sad.”

Nostalgia (Directed by SHU Haolun, 2006)

Highly personal, director Shu Haolun returns to the Dazhongli neighbourhood of Shanghai – one of the city’s oldest - to interview his family, reminisce on departed friends, trace old haunts and in a docu-drama detour, recreate everyday rituals with child actors. Facing a buyout from a Hong Kong developer that will see the iconic shikumen buildings knocked down and repopulated by shiny skyscrapers or apartment tower blocks, families such as Shu’s who have called Dazhongli home for some six decades, are being forced to move. If the neighbourhood remains, it will likely be only in part as a tourist attraction, a historical novelty retained only as store fronts, perhaps for those who as Shu once did, want to imagine themselves as a wuxia swordsman like Zhan Zhao (“the roof was a wonderland”). If a little too ambitious in scope, Nostalgia’s tender gaze at the relationship between personhood and place presents a microcosm of the conflict faced by cities globally, a critique of how so few urban denizens have a say on modernisation, or as Shu puts it, how to “give this old world to the new world”.

Before the Flood (directed by Li Yifan and Yan Yu, 2005) + Before The Flood II – Gongtan (Directed by YAN Yu, 2008)

A portrait of Fengjie filmed over 11 months as residents prepare to be submerged due to the Three Gorges Dam project, Li Yifan and Yan Yu’s film is a survey of an ancient town about to go under in the name of modernisation. The fight for fair compensation and resettlement between powerless residents and the governor’s office provides drama, but Before the Flood is best at loosely capturing Fengjie’s genial texture of life. Shot three years later, Yan’s follow-up shifts focus to Gongtan, a 1700 year-old village set to be flattened to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Featuring advances in camerawork and a leaner running time than its predecessor, as residents threaten to take their complaints higher up the chain of command and call for government to answer their demands, a key conundrum appears in the subplot of a man suspected of betraying the campaign to work with the authorities. A virtual resettlement procedural.


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