Lives, Feelings, and Faith: Report From Reel China #3

Disorder (dir. Huang Weikai)

This week we are spotlighting the Reel China Documentary Biennial, which held its Fifth edition last October with a showcase of nine recent documentaries produced by independent filmmakers in China. To commemorate the event, we are posting a handful of reports by attendees of the festival.

By Mirela David

Three documentaries made an impression on me at the 5th Reel China Documentary Biennial: Du Haibin’s 1428, Ji Dan’s Spiral Staircase of Harbin and Huang Weikai’s Disorder. I will compare the three movies, taking into consideration the following aspects: how they approach everyday life, public/private spheres, reality, censorship, themes and genre.

Du Haibin’s 1428 explores the quotidian hardships of the survivors of the Sichuan earthquake: from living in ruins, trying to cook with meager means, and waiting in line to get food from the government, to discussions dealing with compensation and living in temporary housing. Ji Dan’s Spiral Staircase of Harbin examines the inner struggles of two families, surrounding their children and their personal dramas. Scenes of everyday life abound in this documentary too: house chores, cooking, eating, going to the marketplace, bargaining, worrying over money. Huang Weikai’s Disorder, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with elements of everyday life as he is with unexpected, out of ordinary events that can take place, such as the malfunctioning of a hydrant that inundates an intersection, or the various naked people on a bridge interrupting traffic.

The way these authors explore their found events can also be analyzed by considering the relationship between public and private spheres. Du Haibin explores public destruction in the first part of his documentary, and moves deeper into private family stories, dramas and emotions in the latter part. Ji Dan exclusively focuses on the inner life of her characters and confines the documentary to the privacy of their home or work, with one notable exception when accompanying a woman on her way to see her husband in jail. In stark contrast to both, there’s Huang Weikai’s hallucinatory capturing of what can go terribly wrong in the public sphere.

When trying to assess how these various directors approach reality, it is imperative to reflect on technical aspects such as the camera, DV technology, censorship, and the presence or absence of a narrator. Even though there is a pretense in documentaries to present reality, especially in such documentaries where the absence of a narrator makes it more convincing to believe one can render something more objectively, this is a mere illusion. The issue of representation is forever daunting. All directors make conscious editing choices of what to include and what to cut, and through that process they can ably modify the message of the documentary.

The Spiral Staircase of Harbin (dir. Ji Dan)

The position of the cameraman and the absence of the interviewers are particularly fascinating. In 1428 there is one instance where a person addresses the cameraman, and he answers back. Otherwise there is no contact with the cameraman. However, in Spiral Staircase of Harbin documentary you get the feeling the characters are constantly talking in a confessional mode to the camera, which has total access to their private life. In Disorder the camera is close to where the action is, where the most shocking things occur. This is enabled by the emergence of the new DV technology, which makes it accessible for any ordinary person to record on-the-spot videos. This explains the violence and the out of ordinary stories presented in this movie. The director’s craft then consists of editing the stories, as well as in his choice of depicting the story in black and white images.

Even though the various palettes of colors prompted him to opt for black/white images, they create a sense of bleakness, which make the stories even more striking. In representing reality, it appears that for Huang Weikai visual images are much more striking than words. Watching Disorder you are constantly bombarded with shocking visually suggestive images. By contrast 1428 consists of both visually shocking and interesting spontaneous dialogues and confessions. Music is also salient in 1428, and even though it was custom made I recognized the musical accompaniment of a Romanian pop song that was paradoxically in vogue in Europe and has even been taken up by Rihanna in the US. Even though most songs were meant to express feelings, the chaotic message of this song (at least the Romanian version) goes well with the mayhem in Sichuan and its circulation underscores the global circulation of music. Similarly, dialogue and confession seem to be the most germane elements in Ji Dan’s movie.

Related to the issue of representing reality is censorship, and whether what is presented on the screen is the director’s choice, or has gone through the censor’s bureau and has been screened or “harmonized” so as not to disturb certain political sensibilities. Disorder, with the shockingly violent images of policemen dragging women and beating people on the street, would certainly be problematic; therefore I find it quite bold to make such a movie. It’s likely that 1428, would not pass censorship.. There are a couple of scenes in 1428 where the people who appear in the documentary are trying to decipher just how much they should engage in political criticism on camera, as well as detect whether this is a state documentary, in which case they can try to demand help.

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

The absence of a narrator or an omnipresent voice gives more credence to the apparent reality. The construction of the narrative is intriguing and parallels can be established between all three movies, in the choices the directors make to intertwine more stories. Ji Dan only has two stories, while the other two directors work with more stories that they interweave. Du Haibin has probably the most sophisticated technique of narrative. 1428 employs the figure of a man in rags, apparently a madman, who appears at several key moments, including at the beginning and the end of the documentary. The madman functions as a linkage between the various stories, somewhat like a narrative motif. Even though he isn’t introduced from the beginning, he will become part of a particular story told by his father. Striking is his father’s assessment that his son’s life before the earthquake was even worse than the temporary housing where they now live.

Huang Weikai also achieves a state of disarray in Disorder, as the English title of his movie suggests, by the disruptive manner in which he arranges the hallucinating and incredible video imagines he has at his disposal. While Du Haibin shot 175 hours of footage, which he then cut, Huang had at his disposal almost 1000 hours. Both manage to capture the state of absurdity that natural or manmade disasters can create. It’s worth noting that pigs function as symbols in both Huang’s and Du’s documentaries to express this state of mayhem, whether running around to elude being sent to death or running into traffic. The idea that things aren’t going as they should be and that one has lost control over one’s life is investigated on a more psychologically charged level by Ji Dan.

What brings Ji Dan’s and Du Haibin’s documentaries closer is the prominence they assign to feeling. Du describes the process of editing 1428 as first organizing his own feelings while wanting to capture the feelings of the survivors at the same time. Ji’s Spiral Staircase of Harbin also examines the inner feelings of the teenage daughter, of the frustrated mother, as well of the disgruntled father and tired wife. Du Haibin focuses on mourning while Ji Dan focuses on melancholia. If we think of Freud’s comparison of mourning with melancholia and their shared symptoms these documentaries seem even more similar. While mourning refers to loss of loved ones as in Haibin’s movie, the object of melancholia is mostly located in the unconsciousness, since it is not clear. One could guess that the impossibility of communication could be the cause of depression for the young girl in Ji Dan’s movie, while the problems of having a husband in jail and a daughter refusing to go to college would explain the mother’s frustrated state; similar problems with a teenager out of control plague the father of another family, who also has to face a terminal illness. However, it is all left undetermined: an impossibility of communication encumbers the mothers of both families, the first one unable to speak with her daughter, the second with her husband.

1428 (dir. Du Haibin)

One of the most exciting parts of these documentaries has to do with their informal engagement with the politics of ordinary people. Most often than not, the effect is comical, although some people’s political comments are staggering. In 1428 some of the people demand that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao should come and speak to the earthquake victims. The scene when an official stops over an impromptu pot in the middle of the street is quite humorous, when a man skillfully thanks the government for the help he received. Many of the people are grumbling and questioning some of the relief efforts: thus the Moshi village priority project enrages some peasants, who protest they can’t even get a loan to build a house. Their understanding of politics is quite sophisticated, particularly with one woman who complains vehemently while at the same time making it clear she’s not arguing against the government. Sometimes they even discuss conspiracies, disputing whether the government knew about the earthquake and didn’t announce it. The answer that comes from one of the people is quite amusing: they would have saved the officials. Overall the comments are quite surprising and in line with the lively political debates you can find in any park in Chinese cities. Politics are discussed in Spiral Staircase of Harbin too, at the mother’s workplace, when her coworkers are complaining that 2008 was China’s biggest shame, since the government was not able to take measures to prevent the stock market crisis. The most comical political comments come from the father, who, while watching the Olympics, argues that China is becoming a world power. Furthermore, he adds that “Mao didn’t take on the world, but that’s what’s happening here” for an even more humorous effect.

Faith, like politics, is also explored in subversive ways. The woman’s ritual of lighting a circle of candles in the middle of the street in Spiral Staircase of Harbin is quite striking. She prays for everything from her husband in jail to her daughter passing the exam. Meanwhile, the father’s thoughts of turning to Christianity point to a crisis in faith. The same crisis is explored by 1428, in the dialogues of the peasants who try to make sense of the tragedy. One peasant exclaims that “Buddha cannot even save himself let alone us from the disaster”. Other people mourn the loss of people as well as the destruction of Daoist and Buddhist temples.

All in all, there are palpable similarities between the three movies, in terms of genre, narrative (the lack of a single narrator; intertwined stories), their focus on sentiment and pain and a pervading chaos, as well as the often comical way people engage informally with politics, and a particular approach to issues of faith.

Mirela David is a Ph.D candidate at NYU in Modern Chinese History with a minor in Modern Japanese History. She spent two years in China studying at Fudan University and has completed Master Programs at Bucharest University and Tubingen University in Germany in Sinology.

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