Chinese Reality #21: Petition

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:

Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)

Petition (dir. Zhao Liang)

Shang fang (Petition)

2009. China. Directed by Zhao Liang.

MoMA program description:

Filmed over the course of 12 years, Zhao Liang’s landmark documentary explores the world of petitioners who travel to Beijing to seek justice back in their hometowns. Zhao uses secret cameras to capture a bureaucracy that leaves people waiting for years for their cases to be heard. The film takes a startling self-reflexive turn when Zhao becomes entangled in a heartbreaking tragedy that unfolds between a petitioner and her daughter. This is a stirring achievement in both journalistic dedication and documentary ethics. The 5-hour long version of Petition captures in greater detail and complexity the stories of the many petitioners who seek justice. The two-hour version of Petition, edited for international festivals and television, offers a dramatically condensed version of Zhao’s five-hour investigation, revealing how the observational aesthetic is reconfigured for general audiences.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

“They are the dregs of society. Scorned and maligned, they live a dangerous existence in crude shantytowns as they pursue their quixotic quest.

They seek redress from the Chinese government and for filmmaker Zhao Liang, these ‘petitioners’ are his country’s greatest heroes. The product of over ten years spent with these marginalized justice seekers, Zhao’s Petition stands as arguably the most damning documentary record of contemporary China to reach American theaters since the initial rise of the Digital Generation of independent filmmakers.

- Joe Bendel

Mr. Zhao’s camera is a stubborn, patient witness to some shocking scenes of bullying and intimidation, and he also offers a sympathetic ear to the ordinary people whose government hardly seems to care. “Petition” is an anthology of Kafkaesque anecdotes, most of them fragmentary, but what gives it shape and almost unbearable dramatic weight are the handful of stories the director pursues in detail. The most sustained of these — the stuff of a tragic novel — involves a woman named Qi, who has come from the countryside after her husband’s death. She is joined by their daughter, Xiaojuan, and it is only late in the film, after they have been separated and reunited, that you realize how long their ordeal has lasted, and how terrible it has been.

- A.O. Scott, The New York Times, Jan 13 2011

Zhao films the protest marches and raids by thugs hired to break petitioners, part of a routine that never changes for a veteran like Qi, discovered a decade on in seeking redress for her husband’s hastily covered-up death during a workplace medical checkup, but only succeeding in losing her daughter as well by ignoring the girl’s schooling and upbringing for an irreconcilable mission that verges on psychosis. (Zhao challenges his viewers throughout to discriminate between injustice and clinical paranoia, while observing the mutually reinforcing relationship of both.)

- Nick Pinkerton, The Village Voice

Zhao excels at both drawing out these people’s war stories—accumulating piles of meaningless “re-registration” slips from official paper pushers, being shuttled in and out of detention centers, or in the case of Qi and others, into psychiatric hospitals under dubious diagnoses and drug regimens—and grabbing often surreptitious glimpses of a one-party state’s swift subjugation of the disorderly.

- Bill Weber, Slant Magazine

In 1996, Mr. Zhao began taking his camera to a shantytown in Beijing called the Petitioners’ Village, where people with grievances from all over the country camp out while trying to plead their case at the central petition office. It was a Sisyphean mission, and a dangerous one: the system encourages security officers to abduct and punish the petitioners. Mr. Zhao shot 500 hours of footage, sometimes using hidden cameras inside the petition office. In the middle of the shooting, Mr. Zhao came to believe security agents were stalking him. The film was finished, and made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2009, but was immediately banned in China. Officers asked about Mr. Zhao in his hometown. He turned off his cellphone and fled to Tibet for three weeks.

-  Edward Wong, New York Times, August 13, 2011

Filming China’s Dark Side from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

Journalist: In the short version, many dramatic elements about Fan Xiaojuan and her mother is gone, even some essential content.

Zhao: But a film has limited capacity. The general mood of the short one is tough and brave, so I tried to avoid tears during the editing. For example, I would avoid scenes that might sadden the audiences and trigger tears. I tried to make my work more masculine. But in the longer version, I highlighted the mother-daughter story. If the audiences feel like to cry, let them cry freely.

In the longer version, the mother-daughter story is told in flashback, across-edited with the ongoing reality. Their ten-year life experience is reflected in the long process of looking for the mother. In the two-hour version, the structure is readjusted to help the audience understand the film. Too complicated plot may cause many misunderstandings, such as confusions in the chronological order. The relationship between different characters is quite complicated.

- Zhao Liang, interviewed in Liang You magazine, translated by Yuqian Yan for dGenerate Films

Ethical questions regarding the relationship between a documentary maker and his subjects came to a head in Petition, particularly in the scene where Juan gives you a letter to pass on to her mother to say that she’s leaving Beijing. Can you talk about how you felt about that situation at the time?

I agreed with Juan’s decision to leave. There was no need for her to waste her youth in a place like Beijing South Railway Station. On and off I was hinting to Qi that Juan might leave some day, but she refused to believe it because she was afraid of being separated from her daughter. If Juan had given the letter to her mother she would have stopped her leaving. So Juan gave the letter to me to pass on. I knew it would be ugly. Before I had an OK relationship with the mother, but when I gave her the letter, her reaction was as I predicted. She wouldn’t listen to any explanation and wasn’t willing to think about it from any other perspective.

At that time the struggle I had was whether to shoot or not. As a professional documentary maker I knew this would be important, so I had to shoot it. When I edited the film I saw that because I was so focused on talking to the mother, her head was cut off in the picture – including later when she ran off and I was chasing her. All the footage is of the ground or my feet. So I didn’t use all the footage, but I really regret that now. The footage of me chasing her is so cruel for the audience to watch, but if I could have included the scenes of me speaking to her it would have helped the audience understand better and I would have been less criticised.

- Zhao Liang, interviewed by Dan Edwards, Senses of Cinema, July 2012

Zhao Liang’s patience must be the same as the patience of the litigants of Petition, as seen in his labourious, morose working method, but his objective is the opposite. You can’t challenge reality (because you risk ending up like the community of litigants), so you have to sing it. To the point of looking for beauty in what is unjust? Yes, even to that point. Reality—in other words, power—can easily assimilate its own critique, but not its hymn, which will always be the property of the poet. With any other topic he could have been involuntarily serving the propaganda of what he’s criticizing, but the issue of the absence of justice turns our hearts with so much power that this is impossible. It’s an issue that can’t be read in two ways because the facts that Zhao Liang describe are flagrantly indisputable (and therefore, impossible to manipulate, even though contemporary pessimism, since the birth of the audiovisual, tell us that everything is). In spite of this—and much to his regret, I imagine—because of his formal strength, his inspiration, Zhao Liang has become not the poet of justice, but the poet of injustice (he doesn’t criticize, he sings)…affirming the superiority of art and the artist over the rest of the mortals.

- Albert Serra, Cinema Scope

Additional resources on Zhao Liang and his films can be found at Facts and Details.