Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Online Cinema: Buried

The Chinese Independent Film Festival has something of an identity crisis. For the rest of the world, it is a small but scrappy film festival. However, in China, it bills itself as an “exhibition” because all proper “festivals” fall under the purview of the state film authority. It is a safe bet the government bureaucrats would not have been too keen to program the fest’s 2009 winner for best documentary. Fortunately, dGenerate Films, the leading international distributor of independent Chinese film, has made Wang Libo’s Buried available in its entirety on youtube, (with all twelve parts embedded on their website here).

Much like 1428 (also distributed by dGenerate), the tragic earthquake that shook the Sichuan region on May 12th, 2008 was also the impetus for Buried, but Wang takes a radically different tack, looking back to the even greater devastation of the 1976 Tangshan quake. As it turns out, the 2008 earthquake was neither unprecedented nor wholly unexpected.

Globally, the practice of predicting seismic activity with any real precision is highly controversial. The American scientific community remains dubious, which is why we have concentrated on earthquake-proof construction rather than prognostication. Given our resources, this is in fact a logical decision. Conversely, China had devoted considerable wherewithal to forecasting, even largely sparing their seismic researchers the pain of the Cultural Revolution, at least according to the film. Yet, in 1976, their seismologists’ warnings repeatedly fell on willfully deaf ears.

Buried might look like it was shot by a closed circuit security camera, only offering late middle aged scientists and government documents as its visuals, but Wang methodically assembles a damning indictment of the Chinese government. Time and time again, concerned seismologists approached their superiors and various state and party leaders with what they considered compelling signs of an imminent quake in the Tangshan-Beijing region, only to be told to go back and give the matter more study.

Regardless whether their methods had validity, if the Chinese government was supposedly in earthquake predicting business than one would think the authorities would listen to their scientists. Instead, in at least one case, a particularly outspoken seismologist was reassigned to cadre school shortly after pressing the matter with his supervisors.

Unless Wang fabricated Buried out of whole cloth, he presents an airtight case of government negligence and craven bureaucratic cya-ing. Of course, the kicker is that similar warnings were ignored leading up to the Sichuan quake, which is why the veteran seismologists interviewed on camera are so angry. An estimated 240,000 people died in the 1976 and another 80,000 to 100,000 died in 2008, but despite their warnings, they and their colleagues were blamed for not foretelling these disasters.

Buried is not particularly cinematic, but it is certainly convincing. It is also about as independent as cinema gets. To understand contemporary China, viewers should check out it, as well the other films like it that dGenerate specializes in.