1428 (dir. Du Haibin)
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. Be sure to read the first report previously published, “Absurdity, Art and Life on Tape” by Isabella Tianzi Cai.
Accessing the Everyday
By Carol Wang
How does one access the everyday? NYU’s Reel China Documentary Biennial offered an opportunity to consider this question through a selection of contemporary documentaries from independent Chinese filmmakers. The festival began with Du Haibin’s 1428, which documents the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in a cinéma-vérité style. Du, initially arriving on the scene in Beichuan ten days after the quake, captures the images and narratives of a region reduced to rubble. A woman talks about her lost children while doing laundry, a family searches through an empty but intact dormitory for a missing son, and men duck under a crane to grab steel rods from a building site. A young unkempt man, wearing just an ill-fitting winter army coat, ambles across the frame and gazes intently into the camera with a vacant look. There is a considerable amount of news footage available from the days and weeks immediately following the earthquake; much of it is urgent, fast-paced, and sensationalistic. 1428 offers something more understated: a slower tempo, a measure of patience which seems to demonstrate the filmmaker’s concern for his subjects. Despite the abnormalities that define the lives of these individuals, there is very little drama. Real time, when transposed onto the screen, sometimes appears excruciatingly slow.
Du returns six months later to continue filming. It’s winter now, but many are still living in makeshift tent shelters, and continue to rely on government handouts to meet their daily needs. Some, though, have attempted to make their own living – the butcher trucks slabs of meat to the lot where government distributions take place, and teenagers are hawking DVDs and photos of the Beichuan disaster zone to tourists. Du plays an unexpected role here: In response to a question from a tourist, “Is the DVD okay?,” the vendor responds, “Of course, this is the Disaster Zone. If it’s no good, you can bring it back. Look, the media is documenting this” [paraphrased] – and the vendor gestures at Du’s camera, the implication being that the camera is somehow representative of officialdom. Viewers are also implicated, because we too are watching a DVD about the disaster zone.