From the latest issue of the Australian art magazine RealTime.
Zhao Liang’s confronting feature-length documentary is the result of more than a decade of living and filming in a shanty town next to Beijing South Railway Station. The slum—now demolished—was once home to a floating population of thousands who came from all over the country to lodge complaints about authorities in their hometowns. Petitioning is a vestige of China’s feudal past, when any subject theoretically had the right to complain directly to the emperor if wronged by a low-level official. In a society where all levels of government, the courts and police are tightly controlled by the Communist Party, petitioning is the last hope for those seeking redress for an injustice.
Zhao’s film opens with his subjects recounting the litany of problems that brought them to the capital, from compulsory grain requisitions unpaid for by local officials to workers laid off from state enterprises without notice or compensation. Others have had their homes demolished without recompense, or suffered abuse in the armed forces.
The hopelessness of the petitioners’ situation quickly becomes apparent as Zhao follows them into offices ostensibly set up to receive their complaints. Filming secretly, Zhao captures the lethargic indifference of officials ensconced behind metal grilles and glass screens, who routinely deploy security guards to drag away old men and women and beat them when they resist. Outside, “retrievers”—hired thugs sent by local authorities to bring back those attempting to lodge complaints—lurk around the offices, assaulting petitioners and sometimes threatening to kill them if they do not leave Beijing. One petitioner who has been encamped in Beijing for 18 years is chased onto a railway line to be torn apart under a passing express train.
The extreme psychological stress inflicted by this system is traced through the story of Qi, a middle-aged woman pleading for an investigation into the death of her husband, who died mysteriously while undergoing a compulsory medical at work. When we meet Qi, her daughter is a young teenager, loyally following her mother to government offices day after day, rummaging through rubbish for food as they eke out a living in the petitioners’ slum. As she sees her youth and chance for education slip away, the daughter becomes increasingly disillusioned with her mother’s quest, and after years of waiting she flees with a young man to start a new life. She explains her motivations to camera, before entrusting Zhao Liang with a farewell note to her mother.
When Zhao hands the note to Qi, she breaks down and flees the filmmaker’s lens, accusing him of abetting her daughter’s “escape.” Zhao follows and begs her to stop, but after a prolonged chase that is at once absurd and heartrending, Zhao comes to a halt and we see the distraught mother disappear into the distance.
The sequence represents a narrative and ethical crossroads, the point where Zhao’s film becomes less a documentary ‘about’ these people and more an obsession that begins to disturbingly resemble that of the petitioners themselves. It’s as if Zhao, having witnessed and filmed these people’s suffering for over a decade, feels he must stick with them even when they reject his presence, keeping his camera rolling to ward off the awful truth that their situation will likely never be resolved. How do you finish a real-life story about injustice without end, in a system that offers endless new traumas in place of closure and resolution?
As it happens, outside forces bring some sense of cinematic closure. Shortly before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing South Railway Station and the adjoining slum are demolished to make way for an ultra-modern bullet train terminus. We see petitioners scrambling amongst the rubble as they desperately try to retrieve their meagre possessions before they are forcibly relocated to the city’s outskirts. The traumatised Qi disappears and Zhao learns she has been imprisoned in a psychiatric ward until the Games are over. The petitioner’s village is gone, but their story continues, an endless cycle of misery carefully concealed from visitors to the capital.
Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country
Guo Xiaolu’s Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country looks at life outside China’s prosperous key cities. It comprises short interviews with 12 subjects of varying backgrounds, starting with an outspoken farmer whose first words to camera are, “This country is shit!”
Continuing his straight-talking critique of contemporary China, the farmer exclaims, “It’s just raping, corruption, bribing and stealing...the Communists now are completely corrupt...people only care about how to make money. As long as it suits them—fuck the rest!”
While the film’s other subjects are more restrained, endemic corruption remains a common theme. A small-time restaurateur in the hometown of Lei Feng, a PLA soldier Mao once extolled as a virtuous model for the nation, explains how economic “reforms” have corroded the social fabric of the town: “Without bribing you can’t do anything. Money here can make a dead man alive.”
Guo Xiaolu’s interviewees reveal the profound disconnect many feel from their own lives in a society that is at once authoritarian and poor, yet rabidly materialistic. The restaurateur in Lei Feng’s hometown says, “We have no feelings, we just do business...I don’t care for anything else. I’ve more or less lost my life.” A fishmonger comments, “My life is blind,” though she adds that things were much worse back in her village. Young hotel workers explain how their days are an endless cycle of long hours worked for minimal wages. “Nothing is meaningful,” one of them says. “It’s difficult to even think.”
We also meet some who have gained from economic reforms, though corruption continues to lurk behind every comment. A wealthy hotelier explains that “the peasants were moved elsewhere” to make way for her hotel, a casual reference to the ongoing land grab that has seen vast numbers across China thrown out of their homes for little or no compensation in the name of ‘development.’
The film’s final sequence sees a group of young children in an art class speaking to camera. One boy confidently states he wants to be a famous artist, though he amusingly adds that Van Gogh and de Vinci were pitiable because, “They were poor and couldn’t find girlfriends.” His ideal life is “beautiful, free, without any restrictions.” A young girl speaks with quiet intelligence about her love of Van Gogh. Their optimism and confidence provide a sharp contrast with the adult interviewees, though whether this represents youthful naivety or a hope for the future is left open.
Once Upon a Time Proletarian sets hope against apathy, progress against problems, development against ongoing poverty. Most of all, Guo’s film, along with the more intense despair of Petition, evokes the existential void at the heart of a society in which the state fails to provide even a modicum of impartial justice, and treats any dream save material gain with suspicion.
Petition (Shang Fang), director Zhao Liang, producer Sylvie Blum, People’s Republic of China, 2009; Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country (Ceng Jing de Wuchanzhe), director, producer Guo Xiaolu, producer Pamela Casey, People’s Republic of China, 2009
RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 16