Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cycles of Familial Abuse – Ji Dan’s "When the Bough Breaks"

The sisters survey Beijing's frozen winter landscape in Ji Dan's harrowing documentary When the Bough Breaks, screened recently at the "Seeing China" workshop at the University of Technology, Sydney.

If you’ve ever found yourself trapped with someone else’s family as they experience a major emotional meltdown, you’ll have some idea what it’s like to view Ji Dan’s documentary When the Bough Breaks (2011). “It’s just like guerrilla warfare,” comments one family member early in the film, although it’s unclear whether he is referring to life inside his family or the general conditions of life for those living in the cracks of Beijing’s fractured social landscape.

Ji Dan, one of the few female directors working in the male-dominated Chinese documentary world, spent seven years getting to know the family featured in When the Bough Breaks, according to an interview posted recently on the dGenerate Films website. She recalls that she first met them while making a documentary for the Japanese broadcaster NHK back in 2004. At that time the four children (three daughters and a younger son) were enrolled at one of the unofficial schools for migrant children around Beijing. Vast numbers of kids have to attend these schools (if they receive any education at all) when their rural parents are drawn into the cities looking for work, due to China’s hukou, or residence permit, system, which prevents children attending official public schools outside their place of birth.

By 2009, when Ji Dan began shooting When the Bough Breaks, the family was in crisis. The eldest daughter had disappeared and the children’s unofficial school had been closed down. We’re introduced to the family’s world by an opening shot of figures scavenging on a rubbish dump, a stark picture of the appalling living conditions endured by poor rural migrants around China’s major cities. The parents live in a tiny hovel which is due to be demolished, their world framed by the rubbish-covered wasteland outside their door and blocks of apartments in the middle distance marking the edge of Beijing’s encroaching urban sprawl.

The view from below – the family of Jia Dan's When the Bough Breaks scrape out an existence living amongst Beijing's waste on the city's outskirts.
Their two daughters and son appear to live elsewhere, albeit nearby – the exact circumstances of their accommodation remain unclear. Conversations to camera reveal the eldest daughter has been missing for three years. She was working in a brothel and her mother speculates she may have been kidnapped and sold. Xia, the eldest remaining daughter and the focus of Ji Dan’s film, has taken the weight of the family upon her shoulders, pressuring her young brother Gang to enroll in another school while desperately trying to earn the funds to pay for his education.

 “Our fate has already been decided,” says the resigned mother, while the disabled father swills baijiu, berates all those around him and regales the family with inaccurate tales from the Chinese Communist Party’s Long March of the 1930s. Xia’s anger and frustration with her parents’ lassitude is palpable.

Ji Dan’s camera traces the tribulations of the family with an intensity that is unnerving. The disjunction between the privacy these scenes seemed to demand and the children’s apparent obliviousness to Ji Dan’s lens lends a strangely theatrical quality to When the Bough Breaks, even as the film’s discomforting intimacy sears us with the brutal reality of these kids’ existence.

The only glimmer of financial hope comes in the form of a mysterious benefactor, Mr Chen, who we never see, but hear about in the family’s conversations. He has offered to pay both the girls’ tuition fees, and Xia’s mother can’t understand why her daughter is unresponsive to the offer. Subtitles reveal the price of his charity, which is unknown to Xia’s parents and brother – Mr Chen is ill and a “doctor” informed him sleeping with virgins will restore his health. Apparently he regards Xia and her sister as prime candidates to administer this treatment. When Xia declares despairingly, “Looks like I’ll end up like our elder sister,” the look of silent horror and anger on her brother’s face speaks volumes about the pain lurking beneath this family’s surface.

Soon after this we see Gang arguing with Xia about his schooling. Gang wants to give up on his education and begin working, lessening the pressure on Xia to earn. She fiercely resists Gang’s suggestion, but where in earlier scenes she seemed like the family’s sole protector and responsible voice, here we begin to perceive the intolerable pressure she is putting her brother, as she pins all her hopes on his getting into college and dragging them out of the abyss.

Gang and his sister Xia argue about Gang's future in Ji Dan's When the Bough Breaks.

The argument segues into a protracted sequence shot in the parent’s hovel during Chinese New year celebrations. The father bullies and berates the rest of the family, his offensive behaviour intensifying as the daylight fades and he becomes increasingly inebriated. As he sits on his bed and directs each of his children to wash his feet, the situation explodes and he subjects Xia to a prolonged verbal lashing. Eventually he gets up and departs for a neighbour’s house, leaving Xia to turn on her brother and subject him to a similar barrage of insults, belittling him in the same terms her father used to attack her a short time before. Gang simply stares, unmoving throughout his ordeal, the blankness of his expression caught in close-up more frightening than any overt sign of emotion. He’s absorbing blows that cut deep, and who knows what will later be needed to lance these festering emotional wounds.

It’s a graphic and confronting illustration of the way violence – be it physical or psychological – begets violence and creates a cycle of abuse. In the film’s first half, Xia comes across as the family’s default leader, holding them together in the face of the parents’ indifference. By the last half-hour, the intolerable strain of her situation has transformed Xia into the inheritor of her father’s tyrannical crown.

Ji Dan leaves us with a final shot of the two daughters trying to find their way across the snow-bound wasteland outside their parents’ door, Xia holding back and following her younger sister while offering a constant barrage of criticism. It’s not a subtle metaphor for their situation, but then nothing about these girls’ lives is refined. Theirs is a brute struggle for survival.

It’s hard to be critically objective about a film like When the Bough Breaks – it feels crass judging such traumatic real life drama by cinematic criteria. At times the film reminded me of Zhao Liang’s Petition – another grueling viewing experience that’s hard to discuss objectively – but for me When the Bough Breaks is a lesser film on several counts.

First there is the issue of context. The director assumes a lot in terms of viewers’ knowledge of conditions for migrant workers in contemporary China. Without some understanding of the hukou system and its implications for children’s schooling, I’m not sure that the family’s dilemma would make much sense. It’s never really explained why these children can’t go to school, just as it’s never really explained why the unofficial institution they were attending prior to filming had been closed down. Even for viewers well versed in contemporary Chinese conditions, much remains unexplained. Who for example is Mr Chen, the man who wants to pay for the girls’ tuition in exchange for their virginity? And where are the children living at the beginning of the film?

The other issue I had with When the Bough Breaks is one I tend to have with many observational documentaries. Put simply, I’m always left wondering “Where is the filmmaker?” Literally, of course, he or she is behind the camera, observing and moving with their subjects, which is no mean feat in terms of technical skill. But I’m invariably left wondering where the director stands emotionally and intellectually vis-à-vis the scenes we see on screen. Throughout When the Bough Breaks I was asking myself, what is the filmmaker’s response to this family’s plight? Was the director really going to stand by and watch Xia slip into prostitution? Was she really going let both sisters sleep with the mysterious Mr Chen for the sake of a few thousand kuai? More generally, I was left pondering the nature of Ji Dan’s relationship with the children, and why they had agreed to give her such intimate access to their lives.

Ji Dan has stated in interviews that she did in fact help the family out, and became quite involved in their situation. In the interview on the dGenerate Films site, she explained:

“I really couldn’t just sit back and watch them coming so close to a world of suffering and possible danger, given the lengths they were willing to go to secure the money… This is real life, you know. I don’t have a lot of money, but these people had become my friends… So, just as I would with any friend who really needed my help, I helped them and gave them 3,000 [RMB].”

Which is great, but why was this not in the film? Apart from creating a kind of narrative dishonesty – at no point do we have any indication the filmmaker is helping out – for me it would have been more interesting if we had been able to hear about the director’s responses to what she was filming, and the children’s reactions to her presence and help. I can never shake the feeling of artificiality when watching an observational work displaying such a degree of intimacy – it feels like we’ve been given privileged access to a peep hole, without any knowledge of who created the hole or why.

Although Ji Dan’s invisibility reduced the work’s impact for me, When the Bough Breaks is still a shattering viewing experience. Watching the scenes of the father dishing out abuse to all and sundry, the film started to feel like a metaphor for a country ruled by an atrophied political elite perpetuating a seemingly endless cycle of violence and suffering on its population. Certainly much in the family’s situation is inextricably linked to a social and political structure which now unambiguously favours the rich and powerful at great expense to the poor. There is more here than just political allegory however. Families the world over embody anger, frustration and disappointment for their members to varying degrees. For most of us, our conflicted emotions remain shrouded by codes of decorum and a middle-class concern with maintaining appearances. But like the children in Ji Dan’s film, we all end up determined to some extent by the behaviour we grow up with, either aping our parents and siblings or deliberately reacting against their influence. In this respect, When the Bough Breaks speaks to anyone who has ever had to live with a family – which is to say all of us. The big difference is that social conditions make this family’s scars that much rawer and harder to heal.

When the Bough Breaks screened at the recent “Seeing China” workshop at the University of Technology in Sydney. Many thanks to Jenny Chio for organising the screenings and workshop.

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