BEIJING — Zhao Liang’s scorching film, “Petition,” was one of the most striking submissions at the recent China Documentary Film Festival at Songzhuang art village on the outskirts of Beijing.
The two-hour documentary tells the story of Chinese petitioners, villagers who feel that they have suffered injustice at the hands of provincial administrations and have come to Beijing to file a formal petition to have their case reviewed.
But ignored by the bureaucracy in Beijing, they eek out a bare existence in slum shacks, and in one case, concealed in a hiding place under a bridge. Many had previously squatted in Beijing’s squalid southern railway station before it was demolished to make way for the Olympics.
Since provincial officials are evaluated partly on the basis of complaints against them, there is a common practice of engaging thugs, known as “retrievers” to intercept the villagers before they can reach the government offices in Beijing. Despite repeated beatings and rejections, the petitioners stubbornly refuse to abandon the official complaint process that gradually becomes the sole focal point of their lives.
“Petition” captures the lives of people who believed in the system as it was originally sold to them, only to find that the rules of the game were changing as China adapted to the practical realities of the modern world.
The fact that this film could be shown in Beijing may indicate a new openness on the part of the very authorities in Beijing who are being criticized. The two scenes that triggered the most applause were one in which some petitioners, sitting by an outdoor campfire, denounce corruption in the Communist Party, and another in which a petitioner attacks Beijing intellectuals for being all talk and no action. Many of the people applauding were precisely those intellectuals.
The China Documentary Festival is hosted by the Li Xianting Film Fund. Li Xianting, a former critic for China’s leading fine arts magazine, ranks as the unofficial spiritual godfather of much of the contemporary art movement in China, and the film archives gathered by the foundation that bares his name constitute a precious historical record of what was really going on in a country that has shown a tendency to continuously rewrite its own history under the influence of evolving political currents. (The films shown all had subtitles in English.)
A festival held by the foundation on university premises in central Beijing a year ago was briefly shut down by police after the first day, but then allowed to reopen in a less sensitive location. This year, authorities gave it a green light, as long as it was staged in the more remote art village, about an hour’s taxi ride from the center of town.
Zhu Rikun, the festival’s program director, noted in a preface to the accompanying catalog, “In a dark era, still full of fear and threat, documentary films are no different from anything else.” But, in fact, the films show an enormous humanity on the part of just about everyone involved in Chinese life.
Huang Weikai’s “Disorder,” is a disturbing and occasionally hilarious account of five mundane situations developed in parallel to each other, revealed in grainy black and white film. In one of the situations, a half-naked madman wanders through congested traffic on a highway overpass while police try to determine if he has a family, while they also try to give him something to eat and convince him to put on some clothes.
In another situation depicted in the film, an accident involving a truck unleashes a herd of pigs in the middle of traffic. The pigs are obviously delighted by their freedom while the police are less so, as they try to round them up and put them back in the truck. Finally, even that effort is checked when a police officer chews out the truck driver for trying to put too many pigs into a cramped space that has insufficient ventilation. That is inhuman, he says.
In the most disturbing sequence, a family discovers an abandoned infant in a basket in a field, but can’t decide what to do with her. They finally walk off and leave her to her fate (presumably the cameraman didn’t do the same).
Still another film, Wang Yang’s “The Sound of Silence,” records the story of university graduates and dropouts over a seven-year period in which the difficulty of not being able to find a decent job raises questions about lost youth.
What all these films have in common is that they tell intensely human stories about people coping with everyday life, in which dreams are tempered by fate and practicality. In short, China may be emerging as a superpower, but its people are just human beings, and in that, they are no different from any of us.
More on the arts and China:
Tiananmen 20 years on: An artist speaks out
Detroit techno storms Beijing
China: rock responsibly?