Chinese Reality #14: Railroad of Hope

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

Railroad of Hope (dir. Ning Ying)

Railroad of Hope (dir. Ning Ying)

Xi wang zhi lu (Railroad of Hope)

2002. China. Directed by Ning Ying.

MoMA program description:

Years before the hit 2009 documentary Last Train Home depicted the plight of China’s migrant population, Ning Ying joined a trainload of agricultural workers on a grueling three-day journey to China’s northwest frontier in search of better jobs. In contrast to Last Train Home’s self-effacing style, Ning foregrounds her own presence through her exchanges with fellow passengers, as they respond to her disarmingly direct questions about their lives, hopes, and dreams with heartbreaking candor. A fascinating study of how the documentary camera serves as both objective observer of and subjective confidant for its subjects.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

A documentary in which, probably for the first time ever, we can listen to Chinese peasants from poor interior regions speaking openly and sincerely about their lives.

2002 Berlinale Forum program

Following hundreds of agricultural workers from Sichuang Province to Xinjiang, China’s northwest frontier, a journey of more than 3,000 km, Ning Ying spent three days and nights in the crowded train befriending and interviewing these hopeful peasants with their many dreams for the future, some shared and some diverging. Most of them, especially the young women, are on their first trip away from their native villages as well as their first time on a train.

Zhang Zhen, Harvard Univeristy Nieman Reports

Filmmaker Ning Ying is a rare breed among independent Chinese filmmakers, not only because she is a woman, but also because she attended the Beijing Film Academy alongside 5th generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who decidedly do not share the same aesthetics, concerns, and economic paradigms as their younger counterparts.

La Frances Hui, ChinaFile

Ning, an eloquent interpreter of her movies, explains that she takes issues with many documentary filmmakers who simply place the camera waiting for things to happen. The camera, claims Ning, cannot capture anything that has not already taken place inside the director’s mind. Unmotivated filmmaking shows, in her view, “an empty head behind the camera.” Railroad of Hope, on the other hand, makes use of directorial intervention to produce a highly personal statement. Rather than a xianchang-like investigation of a particular site, the film comes close to a fictional account.

Yomi Braester, “Excuse Me, Your Camera Is In My Face.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

Ning Ying… in her cinematography has always preferred the progressive mixture between fiction and documentary, telling stories in which the restless and ever changing soul of her country is expressed… In this sense Ning Ying is somehow (maybe even unconsciously) a reference point for the new generation of Chinese film directors who aim at achieving an “emotional and documentaristic” cinema.

– Il Manifesto

In one emotional interview, a woman tells of being tricked into moving to Xinjiang to marry her brother’s older friend in exchange for the promise of work.  In almost every case, the workers speak of their hopes for a better life for their children, and it’s clear that, in doing so, they have renounced their own dreams . As voyeurs to these conversations, we are forced to understand the tragic implications of so many thousands of people living deferred lives.

Leah Modigliani, Stretcher

2 Why did you choose to shoot on dv?

– because it’s small

3 What was special about shooting in dv (e.g.compared to 35mm, was it your first time with dv or are you used to it)?

– dv allows for more freedom
– it was the first time with dv

4 Which camera and which editing software did you use?

– Sony PD-150 and Apple Final Cut-Pro

5 What was your shoot-edit ratio?

– 30:1

From a questionnaire answered by Ning Ying for netLoungeDV 2002

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