Xu Xin’s 6-hour testament video, Karamay, which I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival in October, works forcefully through the aggregate weight of testimonies of indignant misery and cinematic time. Predominately made up of direct-to-camera address by the parents of victims of the 1994 fire in the community hall of the titular company town which claimed over 300 lives, mostly children, Xu, who directs and acts as his own cameraman, puts the camera across from his interviewees in their living rooms and instead of questioning them he lets them talk—for a long time.
Karamay’s framing and editing are imprecise and functional at best, and the direct address of the community members to the camera is less an interview and less a visit to their homes (as the repeated living room settings and the camera-across-the-couch suggest) than a reality television inspired confessional space. Inside that space parents whose children died in a national catastrophe whose blame was sidestepped, whose coverage was minimized, whose mourning was rushed, and whose compensation and explanation was mostly avoided, all express exasperation, anger, bafflement, and disorientation in extensive detail, minutely varied. It is a performative space of soliloquy, but soliloquies laid next to one another, in concert, piece by piece building something grand, horrible, and outside themselves. Karamay’s cinema lays not in Xu’s exploration of these testimonials but in the off-screen, imaginative space constructed by all the talk, the wailing, the muted anger. All these living rooms, interchangeable in their bland generic social spaces, conceive all conversation as tragedy, and all guests of the house as witnesses to forlorn sadness, social and political outrage, vessels for absorbing the stifled private outpourings of their hosts.
The film’s communication is one-way: no dialog between filmmaker and his subjects, and barely any “cinematic” dialog between the subjects and the space around them—but rather, a closed circuit communication between the subjects, each interview fleshing out more of a horrific event that exists in the film in terribly aged, washed out video smears of local television coverage and home video recordings before the event (of children practicing performances) and after the event (of the burnt out auditorium, meandering onlooker responses, rooms full of blurry heaps of bodies, post-tragedy meetings and speeches). This footage, only 16 years old but looking 30, captures a tremendous nightmare fantasy-like space for the tragedy—blurred, grainy video images post-fire of absence and confusion, the assembly hall a relic as burnt out as the parents seem emotionally, physically, and spiritually a decade later.
Yet despite the aggregate power of Karamay’s torrent of testimonials, its most powerful moments are actually at it’s very beginning, where the filmmaker is the most active—he takes his handheld digital camera into the sprawling, vacant State-sponsored cemetery built for victims of the disaster, and in real time and in real space goes from memorial to memorial, taking the camera from one identical grave to the next, cramming the lens close to the photographs individuating the graves with images of the children who were lost. Indeed, this sequence of outside, physical proof attains all the more power as hour after hour of the video goes by and we see and hear only those related to the dead, and one wonders where the survivors are, the local and State elite who apparently showed up drunk but scattered early, leaving mostly school children to fight their way out of a faulty and completely unsafe building poorly built, even more poorly maintained and rarely inspected.
Many died but many escaped, and where are they? (A spare handful finally appears towards the end of the video, but none of the elite repeatedly mentioned and blamed.) The story is told, the space of the tragedy and its aftermath is built, detail by detail, by the relatives of the victims, abstracted from the town, re-centered into the home, people who tell and tell again tales of bureaucratic and legislative and police obfuscation, avoidance and repression. The dead attain the feeling of a condition, a tremendous burden, something mysterious and awful, a pall over everything private, inside, familial and individual in Karamay. An occasional picture brought out of storage or a cut to footage of a child’s rehearsal or even footage from before the fire momentarily jabs out with the extremely personal. But even then the personal, mordant fixation retreats to abstract outrage, clearly derived from individually felt tragedy removed, over the years, to a focus on the emptiness not just of the space left behind by the deaths but also the emptiness of explanations, recompense, investigation and the purported power, responsibility and care of the State. Such a considerable, aggregate focus on these same people in their same houses makes everything seem somewhere else, not in the home, everything except for personal and social affronts against these regularized households. Karamay naturally becomes overwhelmingly allegorical for the relationship between personal households and the Chinese State.
The center of all sorrow and hope in Karamay is children. Children are the only hope, and, in the era of single child households, once children die they are quickly conceived or adopted again. The children become the bearers of all the parent’s hopes and dreams, and, once their lives are extinguished, their memories and spirits likewise absorb their parents’ complete attention. With these living rooms becoming the social circle of the film, the absence of kids in these spare conversational spaces becomes even more apparent, the isolation and loneliness of the parents even stronger. Sometimes one parent is the only one who will speak to the camera, the other being unmentioned and out of sight; sometimes another parent is there but silent and stoic, other times they interject. A more precise and curious film would use the camera’s space to subtly explore the marital and household dynamics of these post-tragedy families, but instead Xu’s singular attention on testimony renders micro-revelations of the way these parents’ relationships have been affected Karamay’s richest but most incidental expressions.
These tiny expressions are the result of Xu’s fastidious generosity, a feeling the film gives of desiring to let people finally have a vessel in which to put their outrage and sorrow, a funnel of filmmaker-camera-audience. It is exhausting and probably significantly overlong, yet despite an unexplorative filmmaking stance the film by its very nature “adds up”—the extreme duration combined with Xu’s cinematic restraint and measure, as often minimally expressive or curious as it is, works to create a vast, amorphous expressive space which spreads like a shroud way over the boundaries of the company-town and over the entirety of the country. It is a static testament to the immensity of the struggle within and between the personal and bureaucratic in a mammoth body that feels at once a part of a whole and absolutely alone.
Petition, a 2009 film by Zhao Liang being given a run at the Anthology Film Archives in New York this Friday, works at the geographic, the locational, and the ground in a similar burrowing way Karamay works at the people, repeating sweeps and paths over the same topics, but instead of traveling over similar interviews Liang's video is walking a repeated beat through an emblematic Chinese neighborhood. At a “mere” two hours the film is at once too long, as the gap-ridden attempts at exploring human stories in its setting makes clear, and too short, as the surreal time-compress of the film’s creation, filmed over nearly a decade, the Beijing geography seeming to shift and transform between cuts, suggests. But Zhao's similarly one-man show—this man taking his camera into the alleys, amongst the Beijing population of government petitioners so large that there is a neighborhood, Petition Village, named after them (and subsequently torn down before the Olympics to make way for a new rail terminal)—works furtively in a very human and nubbly geographic corner of space in China. Petition sketches a pointedly incomplete and paranoid vision of the great big world expanding outwards from the point of view of this plaintive, cramped and forgotten crook.
This hovel of a subject and hovel of a place is the derelict and outcast existence of petitioners who travel from the countryside to the capital in the hopes of attentively and thoroughly following the bureaucratic pathways to the (obscure) letter. They wish to address their grievances to the government, only to realize that such extreme dedication to the compassion and humanity of the system is looked at by the system as idiosyncratic and imminently deniable defects. It thereby ignores them—or, at least, ignores those people of Petition, for Zhao's film is not about the petition system per se, as he no doubt could never gain Wiseman-like access to the institution. Rather, it is a portrait of the system from those outside it, rejected by it, who bound their lives to it, giving up their families, homes, steady jobs, years of their lives in the absurd faith that their personal perseverance will be recognized by an institution that seems to see individual complaint or mishap not as an injustice but as a threat.
From this experience, these people—not the petitioners but the petitioning rejects—form a ramshackle and alienated grouping, and not even a community at that, as each person seems to dig out their own bare homeless shelter, have their own injustices, letters and forms, and the disparate group, torn by unique grievances and persecuted bodily by thugs and mentally by the Kafka-esque governmental process, all live with their own lonely problems suppressed and compressed into a ghetto. The only community gathering is to pick up the scattered bloody bones of a long-time petitioner who was run over by the train that continually passes by in total indifference to the helter skelter “village.”
Whether an indication of Petition’s fitful production or the amount of personal access granted to the filmmaker, the video is a concrete and gravel-grey watercolor, some areas touched by the deeper soak of the paint, others, especially the brief and paranoid glimpses of the actual petition offices and petitioning experience, left with the mere suggestion of tone, space, and reality. This unfinishedness, or lack of comprehensivity is similar to that of Karamay, in fact—there are sides to these tragedies that are near-impossible to capture on video in China—as well as in tone, as the world on-screen and off created by Zhao achieves a morphing, nebulous quality for all its material concerns of shelters, fences, winter clothing, papers, and warm meals. It suggests the feeling of an experience, a day to day and a life experience, so total, persevering and uncompromising that a film could never reveal its extent, its human depth and its wordly and social details. It is left only to unauthorized works of cinema like Petition and Karamay to work at the margins to paradoxically color in the center of China, and leave it to our imaginations what exists all around it.