“What Else Can We Do?” Personal Responses to Karamay

By Kevin B. Lee

Karamay (dir. Xu Xin)

Xu Xin’s devastating epic documentary Karamay is set to make its San Francisco premiere this Sunday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. (Details here). In advance of the screening, I looked back at footage from a discussion held after the film’s New York premiere at the MoMA Documentary Fortnight last month, with director Xu Xin and producer Zhu Rikun both present. Going into the event, I wondered how a local U.S. audience would respond to a six-hour Chinese documentary, and I was especially curious to see how many would stick around for a Q&A session. By the end of the epic screening, a couple dozen people remained in the audience, and from their words they were clearly moved. In fact, the session was not so much dominated by questions and answers as by a series of intense and highly thoughtful responses from several audience members.

It was particularly interesting to hear the reactions of young overseas Chinese students who watched the film, given the film’s critical subject matter as well as past reports of disturbances at Chinese film screenings caused by nationalistic audience members highly sensitive to unflattering depictions of their homeland. (For a vivid example see Jia Zhangke’s first hand accounts of his recent festival experiences.) In the case of this screening, some Chinese audience members expressed a complex and highly personal response to Xu’s film. One viewer remarked how the film maintains a critical view of Chinese society without catering to Western stereotypes:

“What sets your film apart from other Chinese independent films circulating in the international market is that it does not simply fit into a simplified humanistic or humanitarian rhetoric that most Western viewers impose on China’s situation. We tend to demonize China as such, that their educational system brainwashes people and everyone in China just sits there following the rules without any sense of agency over the experience of their own lives. The very structure of your film, especially the beginning shots that take so long with the close ups of each child, and the six hour length of your film, actually demands the viewer to approach China and contemporary Chinese politics and rethink from a critical point of view, not from a simple humanitarian rhetoric of the West. That’s what I think is the most productive part of your film and I appreciate it.”

Another young viewer had an even more personalized response:

“I’m originally from China and I study graduate school at Columbia. I did my undergraduate study at Nanjing University. It’s the school that the girl at the end of the film [who was severely crippled by the Karamay fire] says she hoped to attend, but she can’t anymore. I’m the same age as her, so I imagined if that tragedy hadn’t happened to her, we could have been classmates, even friends. It felt so close to me.

When I looked at the introduction [of the film] at the website and saw that it was six hours, I wondered why was it so long? I thought maybe the director meant to show the sorrow and grief of each parent. But then when I saw the film I got the idea that it’s deeper, it’s beyond that.

One interesting thing I noticed is that when we imagine a film of such a disaster, we imagine that those people who suffered must be poor and helpless and powerless. But then I realized that the parents are middle class, they have nice homes with nice decorations. They are not poor; some of them are probably managers or engineers. Those middle class people in any country are the most tame and mild people. Poor people might rebel, high class people might get power, but the middle class don’t. And here you can see how traditional they are. Even though they suffered from that tragedy, they still try to think for the party, for the country. Like my parents, when I’m home, and I criticize the party, my father tells me to shut up and just be thankful that we live such great lives.

But when I listen to [the parents in Karamay] talk, it’s such a big contrast. They are so wise, they’re so smart. My parents wouldn’t ask those questions. It’s like after that tragedy, these people’s eyes have been opened. They used to live on a track day by day. They wouldn’t ask any questions. And then after that day, I think that those things appear in their minds, they started to realize what system are we under, what things should we ask for, and what do we get? How helpless, how small and how weak are we?

And I think about my father. I think if these kinds of things happened to me, my father would definitely change, and become like them. Actually the shifting is very easy. If this thing never happened, they would stay the way my father is. So after watching the film, the question that came to me: how can we change people? How can we make them start to think and realize things? We can’t just start another fire. What else can we do?”

Director Xu Xin at the MOMA screening of Karamay

Other audience members were fascinated with how Xu Xin was even able to make such a film, interviewing dozens of families who had lost children in the disastrous 1994 Karamay fire that killed nearly 300 schoolchildren who were forced to wait while government officials were evacuated first from a burning theatre. Xu Xin offered some insight into how he conducted his shooting and what ramifications the film has on his social standing in China:

“Most of the interviews took place in the subjects’ homes. But some people chose not to be interviewed in their home out of concern for their children. So I rented a place from one of the parents and invited all of those people who did not want to be interviewed in their homes.

There are 22 families in this documentary. In fact, the number of victims is much larger. They all talked a lot for this project. The shortest interview lasted just one day, but most of them lasted 3 or 4 days. I think the reason why they were able to talk so much was because of the time they had with all their pent up emotions. So when someone took the proactive role to go to them and give them the chance to talk, they would pour out everything they wanted to say. The second thing that they were able to talk to the camera so much was because I went there in secret. Nobody knew about my shooting, so they probably felt safe.

As you’ve seen from the movie, this place is owned by China’s national petroleum corporation. The people you’ve seen interviewed in the film are not that that remotely connected to each other because they all are connected to the corporation in some way. They are all considered upper middle class in China in terms of their salary. That’s why the settings of their living rooms look similar.

There are Chinese independent filmmakers who have been caught and imprisoned from making documentaries about sensitive political issues. From this film I’ve been able to avoid these problems, perhaps due to how the parents phrase themselves. All in all, this is a film about the fire. It’s not a political incident.”*

Producer Zhu Rikun added his own take on the issue of censorship for independent documentary filmmakers in China:

Producer Zhu Rikun addresses the audience as moderator Chi-hui Yang and translator Isabella Tianzi Cai look on

“For independent productions censorship is not a big obstacle getting in the way of getting the films shown. The world is getting more transparent and open and is facilitating world distribution. Compared to other kinds of political activities, independent filmmaking is not as risky. We don’t face as much pressure and obstacles as they do. For example, lawyers or other people who may get caught by the police and placed in prison. That’s not typically faced by documentary filmmakers. The responsibility rests on the filmmakers themselves concerning self-censorship. Most people think it’s very hard for independent filmmakers. It’s because there are not so many of them out there. If the number is big then the problem would become smaller. I think this film is made not just for Chinese audiences, it’s made for everyone because the world is getting smaller. This problem does not just concern Chinese people, it’s a universal problem. It’s more important that we think about what the film is about rather than who the film is made for.”*

However, since Zhu Rikun made these comments in February, new obstacles have emerged for independent filmmaking in China, as several websites related to independent film have been shut down, such as the websites for Fanhall Films, the Li Xianting Film Fund and Yunnan Film Festival. It remains to be seen what ongoing ramifications the current communications crackdown in China will have on independent filmmakers – but we can assume that, true to the title of the Yerba Buena series, they will remain fearless.

*Q&A translation by Isabella Tianzi Cai

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  • Isabella

    I really like the first comment. Repetition and length are often used by experimental filmmakers to build tension into a film. In Karamay, Xu Xin uses these techniques to the point where we feel uncomfortable with our most immediate reactions. Each time a photo of a dead child appears on screen, it feels like we need to revise our previous thoughts and opinions. The beginning sequence is not bland, it is meditative.

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  • Paul

    thanks for this, which is unusually honest even from a writer as great as mr. lee, on a blog as great as this one. for ms. cai the translator to comment on how the mise en scene affected her emotions, after you both allowed the non-critics’ experience precedence over your own in the post itself, is also too rare to see. i’m too far from NYC to make it there for all your essential screenings, but i can still feel some sense of what it may have felt like to see there thanks to this. it’s essential to preserve these initial US responses, to see not only the “answers” of The Artist but the words of both sides of the conversation. you guys at dgen so obviously don’t care too much about money, but also just as important, you care about way more than art or technique for its own sake. you’re literally the only company in the world i admire.