Petition Village is located behind Beijing’s South Railway Station. The inhabitants of this shantytown have come from all over China and they all share a single objective: reparation from the Chinese state. Qi’s husband, for example, died after a routine medical checkup and was immediately cremated. Qi wants to get to the bottom of the matter, but the local authorities in her village refuse to respond. And that is why she and her daughter have been camping for the last 10 years in Petition Village. From there, she makes her daily trek to the Petition Office. It is a hopeless case, as are those of many of the other complainants whom filmmaker Zhao Liang (1971) has been following — some of them for as long as a decade. The absolute powerlessness in the face of the arbitrary indifference of the totalitarian state is shocking to behold. Zhao Liang has been chronicling the rapid transformations Beijing is undergoing for years, focusing in particular on how these changes are expressed in the relationship between individuals and the authorities. In Petition, Zhao employs a reportage style to film the complainants in their tumbledown accommodations, while standing in line, or at the Petition Office counter. Their struggle is hopeless, but still they persevere. Zhao gives the anonymous activists a voice. “Who does the People’s Republic belong to anyway?” one of them wonders out loud. And another calls out, “This is a socialist country. We want human rights and justice.”
Petition by Zhao Liang
Beneath the radar of the feverish economic boom transforming mainland China, an underground revolution is taking place in low-budget documentary filmmaking. Over the last few years a number of talented and courageous independent filmmakers have dedicated themselves to capturing the rapid changes reinventing the landscape, cities and culture of a country that continues to stoke the red-hot fires of its ardent economic development. The development of ultra-lightweight and unobtrusive digital equipment, as well as support from the international circuit of art galleries, museums, film festivals and cinemathèques, has helped these filmmakers bypass the government agencies that closely monitor big budgeted productions.
One of the newest directors to emerge from China’s exciting documentary new wave is Zhao Liang, an internationally recognized video artist who only recently turned to feature filmmaking. With his series of insightful documentaries focused on subjects ranging from the avant-garde community in Beijing to the experiences of young peace officers patrolling a remote village, Zhao is poised to join the front ranks of Chinese nonfiction filmmakers, alongside the likes of Wang Bing, Jia Zhangke and Zhao Dayong.
Petition, a documentary that took director Zhao Liang 12 years to film (1996-2008), is “dedicated to those in pursuit of their beliefs,” which in this case are the many people who travel to Beijing and other Chinese cities seeking juridical closure at the Petition Offices. The petitioners have been wronged and ignored by their local officials and spend months or years camping out in squalid conditions in all seasons, waiting for the higher administrative stratum to finally award recognition of their grievances. It’s not entirely clear what the petitioners expect — remuneration, retribution, restoration — but what becomes apparent very quickly is that their hopes are unfounded and their resolve tragic.
The hardships are incredible. One teenage girl is unable to attend school because she lives with her mother in a Petition Village. The petitioners are waylaid and beaten by retrievers, who are hired to bring the number of petitions down in their localities so that the government can save face. Late in the film, we watch as a group of petitioners walk along the train tracks collecting parts of a man and a woman who were hit while fleeing from retrievers.
The mortal danger, however, is an ancillary worry. The greatest obstacle is that the judicial system is impenetrable. The best way to describe it is to quote at length from page 113 of Breon Mitchell’s translation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial:
He had of course set to work immediately, and the first petition was already nearly finished. It was very important, for the first impression made by the defense often influenced the whole course of the proceedings. Unfortunately, and he felt he must point this out to K., on some occasions initial petitions were not even read by the court. They were simply put in the file with a note that for the time being the hearings and surveillance of the accused were much more important than anything put in writing. If the petitioner pressed the issue, it was added that once all the evidence had been collected, and prior to the verdict, this first petition would be considered as well, together with all other documents of course. Unfortunately that wasn’t true either in most cases; the first petition was generally misplaced or completely lost…
Screenings of “Petition” had to take place in secret, which frustrated him. “I want Chinese to see the film and have a better understanding of the environment in which they live,” he told an audience this March when “Petition” was screened at the Kubrick Café in Hong Kong.
Mr. Zhao’s camera is a stubborn, patient witness to some shocking scenes of bullying and intimidation, and he also offers a sympathetic ear to the ordinary people whose government hardly seems to care. “Petition” is an anthology of Kafkaesque anecdotes, most of them fragmentary, but what gives it shape and almost unbearable dramatic weight are the handful of stories the director pursues in detail. The most sustained of these — the stuff of a tragic novel — involves a woman named Qi, who has come from the countryside after her husband’s death. She is joined by their daughter, Xiaojuan, and it is only late in the film, after they have been separated and reunited, that you realize how long their ordeal has lasted, and how terrible it has been.
Journalist: In Tuchimoto Noriaki’s retrospective in this film festival, Tuchimoto says that film is the fruit of happiness, although minamata disease is a tragic social reality. Did you feel happy during your filming?
Zhao: It was very painful, no happiness at all. I tried to be more professional. All that was happening was very worth recording.
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