Thursday, March 01, 2012

Best of Clermont-Ferrand: On the Way to the Sea

Marked by denial, obstruction, and spin, the Chinese government’s response to the 2008 earthquake that rocked Sichuan Province bordered on the outright surreal. As a result, the experimental approach of Canadian-based native Chinese filmmaker Tao Gu’s On the Way to the Sea conveys the physical and spiritual enormity of the disaster quite aptly. The winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, arguably the world’s most prestigious fest for shorts, OTWTTS (trailer here) screens tomorrow night in New York as part of a Clermont-Ferrand Highlights program at the 92Y Tribeca.

Unlike more conventional documentaries, OTWTTS does not rake the mock of the shoddy school construction practices that exacerbated the quake’s death toll or challenge the state’s dubious fatality statistics. Instead, Tao Gu gives a personal-impressionistic sense of the catastrophe and aftermath, through the eyes of his survivor parents. Bearing symptoms of post-traumatic shock, they do not sound merely displaced, but bereft of their sense of belonging in the world.

Through grainy black-and-white images, he captures a devastated Wenchuan that brings to mind London after the Blitz, coastal Japan after the tsunami, or even a post-Atomic Hiroshima. Despite their terrifying memories of the actual quake, it might even be more painful for his parents to watch the authorities raze the not inconsiderable extant remains of their home.

Ironically, Tao Gu’s visuals might arguably be too artistically composed, giving the disaster area a patina of scarred beauty. Clearly a talented eye, his contextual shots of the surrounding countryside could make striking covers for ECM Records.

Deeply felt and arrestingly rendered, OTWTTS is a haunting film. While it certainly eschews the standard techniques of traditional documentaries, viewers should not be scared away by the “experimental” label. Indeed, the nearly twenty minute short stirs audience emotions rather directly. Highly recommended, it is the highlight of the 92Y’s Clermont-Ferrand highlights, screening as part of program 2 tomorrow night (3/2).