THE CRISIS OF THE REAL: NEW CHINESE DOCUMENTARIES

Ping'an Yueqing Aiweiwei1

PING’AN YUEQING
平安乐清
Ping’an yueqing

Directed by Ai Weiwei
2011, 103 min, digital.
In Chinese with English subtitles.

The documentaries produced by Ai Weiwei’s studio are closer to investigative journalism than to conceptual art. This film in particular starts from a specific case, the mysterious death by “road accident” of a village leader, Qian Yunhui from Zhejiang province, an activist who stood up for his fellow villagers when their land was confiscated without compensation by the local government. Qian’s death in 2010 quickly became a cause célèbre online in China. Ai and his team take up the challenge of determining what really happened, and dig deep into the land dispute lying behind what looks like the convenient murder of a rights advocate. The story unfolds like a thriller, but an ultra-realist one, with terrified villagers, government media spectacles, conflicting stories, and a mysteriously disappearing surveillance video.

Screens at 18:30 on 10 March 2016

Cut-Out-the-Eyes

CUT OUT THE EYES
挖眼睛
Wa yanjing

Directed by Xu Tong
2014, 80 min, digital.
In Chinese with English subtitles.

Er Housheng is a blind musician who travels Inner Mongolia with his lover/partner Liu Lanlan performing the saucy, sensationally bawdy form of musical duet comedy called er ren tai. Er’s female audiences are particularly enthralled with his combination of sensuality, Rabelaisian earthiness, and frankly socially subversive lyrics. Director Xu’s specialty is to train his piercingly observant documentary camera — intimate and complicit, rather than coldly objective —  on unique Chinese characters like Er, using them to probe deep beneath the surface of China’s clash of rural traditions with its urbanizing contemporaneity. The result is, on one hand, an enthralling ethnographic showpiece; but it’s at its core a passionate and frenzied psycho-drama of lust, violence, and genius.

Screens at 15:15 on 13 March 2016

Spark1

SPARK
星火
Xinghuo

Directed by Hu Jie
2014, 101 min, digital.
In Chinese with English subtitles.

Probably China’s most important unofficial historian-filmmaker, Hu Jie documents with his camera episodes that Chinese official history, for now, ignores. Spark was an underground magazine published in 1960 by four young intellectuals who wanted to expose the devastating famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a horrendous period of national suffering that is still unmentioned in China’s history textbooks today. This is filmmaking as urgent historical investigation: with a shoestring budget Hu combines years of research, and a knack for getting people to talk without fear about the most taboo subjects in China’s recent past. His alternative oral history approach knits together courageous and frequently moving interviews with the magazine’s surviving editor, supporters, and readers, who were ready to sacrifice themselves to alert their countrymen to unprecedented disaster.

Screens at 15:30 on 20 March 2016

The_DOSSIER1

THE DOSSIER
档案
Dang’an

Directed by Zhu Rikun
2014, 129 min.
In Chinese and Tibetan with English subtitles.

Tsering Woeser, the subject of Chinese filmmaker Zhu Rikun’s extraordinary documentary, is a Tibetan writer now based in Beijing. Through her writing and online voice, she has become one of the most eloquent voices on Tibet. Zhu Rikun’s sharply designed, formally innovative documentary is completely in Woeser’s own voice: Zhu alternates formally photographed scenes of Woeser reading excerpts from her secret government “dossier” (which she has somehow gained access to) with scenes of her speaking in her own soft but powerful, eloquent, passionate voice. Woeser’s moving account of her political awakening and current activism makes for a powerful document of a Tibetan woman finding her voice and insisting on her freedom to use it.

Screens at 21:15 on 29 March 2016

RiverOfLife

THE RIVER OF LIFE
生命的河流
Shengming de heliu

Directed by Yang Pingdao
2014, 101 min, digital.
In Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese with English subtitles.

Yang Pingdao is one of China’s most exciting emerging filmmakers. His astonishingly creative camera eye brings unexpected beauty to his new feature length film. Using an innovative structure, based on the distinctive texture of family memory through space and time, Yang invents something poised delicately between fiction and documentary to capture crystallized moments in his family history, to recreate in cinematic form its emotional weight and variety, woven around the life and death of his grandmother, and the birth of his child. In order to combine extended family chronicle, implicit national history, and intimate soul-bearing autobiography, Yang employs gentle formal experimentation to invent new cinematic pathways.  Opening film and prize winner of BIFF 2014.

Screens at 21:15 on 1 April 2016

Satiated-VillageSATIATED VILLAGE
吃饱的村子
Chibao de cunzi

Directed by Zou Xueping
2011, 88 min.
In Shandong dialect with English subtitles.

Zou Xueping took her first documentary The Hungry Village (part of Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Project) — made up of first-person testimony about the effects of the Great Famine of 1960 (see Hu Jie’s Spark in this series for another view) on her home village in Shandong —  back home to show her subjects. They unanimously disapproved. Frustrated and full of doubt, Zou then made this second documentary discussing the villagers’ reactions to her first. This wonderful, searching, self-reflexive film questions the necessity and usefulness of truth-telling via cinema, when it brings pain and even shame upon neighbours and family. Zou’s 9-year-old niece emerges as its star, a girl who can balance competing exigencies of truth and love with a wisdom beyond her years.

Screens at 20:45 on 24 March 2016

Peoples ParkPEOPLE’S PARK
人民公园
Renmin gongyuan

Directed by J.P. Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn
2012, 78 min, digital.
In Sichuanese and Mandarin Chinese.

This is an experimental, structuralist documentary shot in People’s Park, Chengdu, Sichuan, in one single, bravura take lasting 75 minutes by two young American directors. Their camera captures the fullness of Chinese urban leisure life. As the camera pans side to side and glides relentlessly forward through the park, it catches hundreds of Chinese urbanites out for fun, relaxation, socializing, and a certain kind of freedom: eating, strolling, singing, practicing calligraphy, and watching each other. Watching becomes dancing, as the film slowly gathers an ecstatic, trance-like groove, building to a rapturous climax, as people, movement, music, image, and sound mix together: this is as close to pure pleasure as cinema gets.

Screens at 18:30 on 15 March 2016, introduced and with a Q&A by co-director Libbie Cohn

The Last Moose thumbTHE LAST MOOSE OF AOLUGUYA
犴达罕
Han da han

Directed by Gu Tao
2013, 99 min, digital.
In Chinese and Ewenki with English subtitles.

Award winning filmmaker Gu Tao’s weirder-than fiction documentary is a portrait of Weijia, a hunter-poet with a tumultuous life. Weijian is a member of the Ewenki minority, whose homeland is near Siberia in far northeastern China. Forbidden to continue hunting, the Ewenki have been forced to move from their forests into dreary Chinese government-designed permanent villages. Deprived of means of livelihood like many of his people, Weijia spends his time drinking and being a poet… when all of a sudden, as in a fairytale, a young teacher from Hainan, the tropical paradise island in China’s far south, comes to marry him and sweep him away. Weijia, clad in tropical print shirts, doesn’t quite fit into paradise, and his story turns dark, with intimations of madness and violence.

Screens at 15:30 on 19 March 2016

TIFF
350 King Street West
Toronto, ON M5V 3C6 Canada

The beauty of independent cinema lies in its independence. The opposite of this independence is a media controlled by a propaganda mechanism under centralized command. Independence, exploration, and discovery grant you freedom.

Hu Jie (Spark)

CINEMA ON THE EDGE