Steady Rise of Chinese Documentaries: Report from IDFA
Documentary filmmaking has been flourishing in China for a number of years, but in the last year or so it has achieved much more international visibility, with festivals programming Chinese documentaries with more frequency as their critical reception broadens. The most obvious demonstration is the work of one of the world’s greatest working documentarians, Wang Bing who, after producing titan length documentaries since 2003’s Tie Xi Qu, has of late seen something of a second wave. In just over 12 months, he has had three documentaries (Ta’ang, Bitter Money and Mrs Fang) at festivals, an extensive retrospective at Kassel’s prestigious Documenta 14, and the Golden Leopard at this year’s Locarno Film Festival.
There’s much quality in Chinese documentary beyond Wang. Wen Hai (Wang’s cinematographer on Three Sisters, 2012) premiered his latest long-length work, We The Workers (2017), at International Film Festival Rotterdam at the start of the year, alongside Guangrong Rong’s peculiar, incendiary Children Are Not Afraid of Death, Children Are Afraid of Ghosts (2017). Around the same time, Ma Li’s Inmates (2017) played Berlinale and Wang Jiuliang’s Plastic China (2016) popped up in Sundance. High profile visual artists Xu Bing and Ai Wei Wei created feature film work in a documentary mode, premiering Dragonfly Eyes (2017) and Human Flow (2017) in the main competitions of Locarno and Venice respectively; and on a smaller scale, Zhou Chen’s Life Imitation (2017) found many plaudits after appearing at CPH:DOX.
China’s strong presence continued at this year’s International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), with a number of documentaries made or set in China. Filmmaker Nanfu Wang, who moved to New York in 2012, premiered at Sundance her debut feature, Hooligan Sparrow (2016), a documentary on human rights abuses in China. Over the same period, she was also working on I Am Another You (2017), which showed at IDFA after Sundance, a film ostensibly about America but equally about China. Wang’s initial point of interest is freedom—on a trip to Florida she thinks she has found it in traveller Dylan, a transient man who eschews traditional lifestyles in favor of “the ascetic life”. He offers to “show [her] what freedom is like” and she abides, living on the streets with him and filming her experiences, shooting scrappily on DLSR and talking over the footage plainly and inquisitively in a reflexive monologue detailing the distances between her life in China and this new one in America.
As Wang learns more about Dylan, she comes to understand both what initially attracted her to his lifestyle and what later distanced her from it. “He seemed like a symbol for the free America I had heard about,” a concept as illusory as it is aspirational. Her conclusion, that what she had “been searching for exists only in the mind” may seem self-evident and naive, yet the director’s idealism is disarming. The film’s message is in the end about closing the distances between two people and places that at first glance appear radically opposed. As Wang said in the post-film Q&A, “I go into every film as a naive person.” She emerges from this one much less so.
Another film about an itinerant outsider, Pan Zhiqi’s 24th Street (2017), was minor in focus compared to other films in IDFA’s feature competition, but revealed through simple, sustained portraiture the desperate living situation endured by some of China’s most impoverished citizens. Starting in Hangzhou in 2010 with the construction of the titular road, Pan follows an intransigent migrant worker (Su) and his partner (Qing) for seven years, following their many moves before looping back to that street for the film’s end. It’s always surprising to see how enormously China’s major cities change, even in such a short span of time.
Su is first seen in his red plastic bathing tub—one of the few possessions he carries with each move—washing himself gleefully roadside on a major street. Zhiqi’s camera pans back to reveal his location and the bemused witnesses passing by. This immediately establishes a humility (and self-sufficiency) that makes Su a sympathetic character; an initial understanding that is eventually tested. Living nomadically with his (second) wife, Qing, Su seems a dedicated and skilled man wronged by the system, committed to his partner and to improving their situation. Yet slowly his true temperament emerges, revealing the mistakes and misjudgments he’s made that have worsened his predicament beyond that shared by the other migrant workers bound to the same fate. Speaking to the camera, Su pleads with a grin that is half grimace, “You see I’m trying my best, right?” It doesn’t take much to slip through the cracks, Pan seems to be suggesting, and his empathetic portrait shows that even the most unreliable character deserves some sympathy.
Hendrick Dusolier’s Last Days in Shibati (2017), IDFA’s midlength competition winner, explores similar insidious processes of urban redevelopment, looking at the last old neighborhood in Chongqing before and during its demolition. The film opens with a clever gambit that plays on the relationship between the filmmaker, subjects and the viewer. “That foreigner keeps filming us,” says the first Shibati resident that Dusolier shows, knowing the filmmaker can’t understand him. With the benefit of subtitles, the viewer is in on the joke, as the resident continues, “This isn’t what you think, its not China anymore. Your images are fake. What you show is not reality.” Other residents prove warmer but the provocation is clear.
While Dussolier may have come to Chongqing with preconceived notions, he takes the time for the inhabitants to challenge them. An old lady he befriends—a self-described “garbage scavenger” and a truly delightful eccentric—thanks him for his attempts to preserve this disappearing place. Returning multiple times to the site, Dusolier depicts a rich, warm community living happily and resiliently despite abject poverty and civic abandonment. In one of the best scenes, a small boy leads the filmmaker up endless spiraling staircases and over crumbling walls, Dussolier filming their journey in smooth, involving first-person steadicam. Arriving at the peak, he twists the camera towards the view: a tableau of shimmering electronic advertising displays and city neons that the child calls “Moonlight City”, the sprawl of which will soon displace the residents from their ancient home. One of the last remaining residents, the boy provides a poetic final image as he flies an orange-red toy phoenix above the mountains of dull grey rubble—a tiny prince reigning over a monolithic empire of dirt. Dilapidated or not, it’s still his home.
World premiering in IDFA’s first feature competition, Xiao Xiao’s Turtle Rock (2017), on the other hand, shows an antiquated China that has escaped any pressures of modernization. A contemplative, transcendentally slow paced documentary about rural modes of living, the film’s oddly impactful end-card reveals quite how isolated the community it portrays is, home to a mere seven families with just four surnames between them, one of whom is the filmmaker’s own. Xiao’s film of Turtle Rock, a secluded village in Hunan Province named after a unique rock formation that sits at its center, feels suitably out of time, an unhurried, unburdened portrait of routine behaviors and daily rituals. The villagers walk and talk, cut and carry bamboo, lay tiles, stoke fires, and cook meals slowly and with consideration, Xiao observing in long, often elaborately staged takes.
Xiao’s images—both those filmed in closeup, hovering on the faces of the villagers as they amble around interior spaces, and the exterior landscape shots, wide and pictorial, often breathtaking—have a compositional sense that seems to have been developed both through his work as photographer and through his innate understanding of the place. He knows, for instance, the route along which the bamboo (“the longest you will ever see”) is carried, so he can move fluidly alongside his uncle, tracking in an extreme-duration take that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Bela Tarr film; and he knows the steps that come into his grandmother’s preparation of a meal, so he intuits how best to capture her motion.
Xiao’s use of black and white, whilst artful, particularly in capturing the movement of light and smoke in interiors, seems an odd way to capture the vibrancy of the landscape. (As someone remarked after the screening, despite the monochrome palette you can still sense all of the green—but still, it may have been nice to see it.) It does however match the film’s overall ethos of simplicity and self-sufficiency, restraint and ritual, a visual classicism that serves to remove distractions from the fringes of the image and accentuate light, shadow and texture, so much so that even the smallest things draw our attention.