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Festival films document China

Officials allow festival to go forward with films that spotlight both the authorities and everyday people.

Posters at the door to the Songzhuan Art Museum where the film festival was held. The logo is a dinosaur skeleton in the shape of a video camera. (William Dowell/GlobalPost)

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.