Chris Berry on Ghost Town

I received the following message from Chris Berry, who had recently watched the film Ghost Town by Zhao Dayong, which will have its international premiere at the 2009 New York Film Festival. In these remarks, he places the film within the context of the Chinese independent documentary movement. (For more information, see CinemaTalk interviews with Chris Berry and China documentary scholar Lu Xinyu.)

I finished watching Ghost Town last night. It’s a very fine film indeed. One of the reviews mentioned Jia Zhangke. But I immediately thought of Wang Bing. The three-part structure, the epic historical theme with larger social implications, the patient observational filmmaking, the people speaking to camera but the filmmaker’s own absence, all these things made me think of Wang Bing. And like his films, it has a strong sense of historical consciousness, an eye for unique material, and a real sympathy for the people in the film and their tough lives. It’s a testament to the continuing strength of the Chinese documentary movement.

The craft, the skill, is partly in the filming but also very much in the editing, and that’s how the filmmaker draws us through the work. The ending, which takes us back to the opening section with its emphasis on Christianity, but then focuses on the Mao statue that has been lurking there in the background throughout (again due to thoughtful choices in the editing) is very powerful, opening all kinds of questions about the impact of different ideologies from outside the town at different times (and of course the impact of other things — like alcohol), and how the villagers are desperate for effective help, but that the things they turn to do not always turn out to be so useful. Watching a film like this, I am reminded again of how important editing is, and what a pity it is not widely recognized as a separate skill in China.

There have been a few independent documentaries and feature films that have dealt with Christianity in China recently. As an atheist, I must admit that I usually find anything that reminds me of how prevalent Christianity is again in China and the inroads it is making very disturbing. I know the situation in China is complicated by the collapse of old socialist values, and a very real experience of abandonment by the state on the part of poor people. As we see in the first part of Ghost Town, the church not only gives them a set of values, but it also supports them materially and socially. Indeed, I assume that part of what that edit at the end of the film is doing is drawing our attention to how Mao took the place occupied by the church before the revolution and now the church is fill the gap occupied by the collapse of Maoism. The films that bother me the most are the ones that seem to proselytizing. For example, I was quite disturbed by Gan Xiao’er’s Raised from Dust, which is also in your catalogue and seemed to me to see suffering as ennobling. Of course, that leads many of its supporters to compare it to Bresson. That’s intended as a great compliment. However, I must admit I have the same problem with Bresson, so maybe it’s just me! With Ghost Town, however, the film seems to be simply observing that, and so although I find the facts worrying, I’m not so bothered about the film.

One of the most notable things is that after all the talk about how Chinese documentary film has become “individualized” or “personal” (gerenhua) over the last ten years, with a retreat from observational towards personal filmmaking, this film does not fit that pattern at all. It’s classic observational filmmaking, with no voiceover and just a few titles to orient the viewer. So, maybe it makes us think more about what “individualized” or “personal” filmmaking in China means. I’ve been working with Lisa Rofel and Lu Xinyu to finish an anthology on China’s New Documentary Movement for the Hong Kong University Press this summer (we hope it will be out next year) and we’ve been having a lot of conversations about this. For some filmmakers, it may be about putting themselves in the film or focusing on their personal lives. But for others, it’s about the way in which the arrival of DV technology has enabled them to make films by themselves, without a crew. That’s what Wu Wenguang talked about in his essay on “Individual Filmmaking” (originally published as “Yige Ren de Yingxiang” in Jingtou xiang ziji de yanjing yiyang (Shanghai: Shanghai Yishu Chubanshe, 2001) 257-263, and translated for Cinema Journal 46, no.1 (2006): 136-140 by Cathryn Clayton.) That essay is all about how the DV liberates him as an individual filmmaker. In that sense, I guess this is an individual film, because it seems to have been made by Zhao Dayong alone, and so are Wang Bing’s films.

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