Last night’s films were quite a change from the bing-blang-blaow extravaganza that was Dogtooth, A Prophet, and I Killed My Mother. These two were also different in that both had Q&A sessions afterward with the film’s director. I’ve also used some forward-thinking and bought tonight & tomorrow’s tickets ahead of time so I can stop showing up 75 minutes early and still only get mediocre seats.
Country: China / France
Director: Zhao Liang
Length: 123 mins
Synopsis: “Since 1996 Zhao Liang has filmed the “petitioners,” who come from all over China to make complaints in Beijing about abuses and injustices committed by the local authorities. Gathered near the complaints offices, around the southern railway station of Beijing, the complainants wait for months or years to obtain justice. Peasants thrown off their land, workers from factories which have gone into liquidation, small homeowners who have seen their houses demolished but received no compensation, all types of cases are represented. The film was shot right up to the start of the Olympic Games, showing the persistent contradictions of China in the midst of powerful economic expansion.”
What the synopsis leaves out is that much of Petition was shot with hidden cameras, resulting in an important, unparalleled look at systemic corruption and abuse of power. The byzantine bureaucracy on display here is beyond Kafka’s worst nightmare and it’s remarkable how many years — even decades — these people will wait while attempting to right a wrong against them. They put their entire lives on hold to perform this Sisyphean task:
1. Petition & wait
2. Petition denied w/ or w/o a meeting
3. Petitioner sent to prison / re-education center / mental hospital
4. Petitioner released and begins process all over again.
Of course, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever even get to step #2. Local provinces don’t want to look bad in front of the central government, so they often send “retrievers” to snatch the petitioners away from Beijing; sometimes they’re deported back home, but often they’re just beat up and bumped up to step #3.
The documentary looks at a number of stories, but focuses in on a woman named Qi and her daughter Juan, who was 12 when filming first started. She no longer attends school and has no life other than sitting with her mother to wait, day in and day out, outside the complaints office. The petitioners set up an entire shantytown for them to live full-time, with the squalid “Petitioners Hotel” (a tiny room jammed with bunkbeds) for those able to pay 40Ã‚Â¢ a night.
There are a number of surprises in the film which I won’t spoil, but in particular is one (the only?) success story out of the whole thing that is really satisfying. Director Liang, in fact, should’ve spent more time on this and Qi & Juan, even though they do already make up a good portion of the film. I also like my documentaries with a strong authorial/directorial presence (I loved Sherman’s March, for example), so I think Petition would’ve been strengthened by hearing/seeing more from Liang — a 12-year film odyssey is no trivial matter after all. His voice also could’ve explained certain things that weren’t readily obvious to Westerner views. Still, the film succeeds as a remarkable, disturbing look at a China rarely glimpsed by outsiders.
The Q&A afterward was painful and I left after a while. We had three people translating between Thai/Chinese/English and it was just taking too long. We also got off on the wrong foot with the first question from an older Thai lady: “Is this fiction or a documentary?”
Across the River
Director: Abbas Ahmadi Motlagh
Length: 83 mins
Synopsis: “In the wake of a major battle during the Iran-Iraq war, a cameraman finds himself stranded in the wilderness alongside the only other survivors, an Iraqi and an Iranian soldier. With a single gun between them, the soldiers alternatively take each other hostage, marching aimlessly upon the scorched earth to an unknown destination. Realizing that neither has anything left to go back to, they form an unlikely friendship, to which the cameraman is the sole witness.”
After being banned in Iran for 6 months, the Bangkok International Film Festival marks the world premiere of Across the River so it’s been hard to get much information online about it. As it now hits the festival circuit (Hawaii etc) I will be curious to see how critics & crowds react. I’ll put it bluntly: I found Across the River mostly interminable and the 83 minutes made me long for seemingly shorter movies, like the 153-minute long A Prophet. The entire opening seemed reminiscent of No Man’s Land as we’re treated to an endless scene of the two soldiers running around their respective trenches a) discovering everyone’s dead and b) shooting random bullets at each other before finally one takes the other hostage. The bulk of the movie is this group wandering around the desert doing nothing but looking thirsty and tired, which only succeeded in making me thirsty and tired as well.
Across the River suffers from several faults, not least of which is that the sound editing was seemingly done by an 8-year-old in a barn. One example among several problems: every sound effect is inexplicably near the same volume, so that lighting a match is sonically equivalent to shooting a gun, etc. I felt like I had water in my ears the whole time and couldn’t properly hear. I realized another major problem during the Q&A session afterward.
A few people walked out during the screening last night, but those who stayed for the Q&A (thankfully only Thai/English translations needed this time) seemed generally impressed. I won’t fully explain it, but hearing/seeing Abbas Ahmadi Motlagh in person made me really want to like the film and re-assess my lukewarm reception. But I have to stick with my initial impression, no matter how much I like the director nor how much the film meant to him. The problem is that he described the film as sort of a dream or nightmare, a way of exorcising his own demons from the Iraq-Iran war. Which is fine, except Across the River is shot using the cinematic syntax of realism. A couple major motifs fall flat because of this confused mix of what it is we’re actually watching (a couple audience questions afterward lead me to believe I wasn’t the only one befuddled). As poetic meditation on war & friendship… maybe the film is OK. As a realistic tale of a group’s travel across the desert after a battle… the film is pretty mediocre.