Sunday, August 16, 2015

Cinema on the Edge: People’s Park

You have to dig Cinema on the Edge co-organizer J.P. Sniadecki’s style. Fluent in Mandarin, the American ethnographic documentarian quickly became a regular patron and guest of underground Chinese film festivals, as well as the even less formal film clubs (such as the one he presents his documentary Yumen for in Yijun He’s short doc, When You Can’t See the Film). His films seem to get steadily better and better, which bodes well for his next project, considering his latest film Iron Ministry was just terrific.

However, Patrons of Cinema on the Edge should somewhat temper their expectations for People’s Park, which he co-directed with Libbie Cohn, predating both Ministry and Yumen. It is definitely more of a formal filmmaking exercise than a statement of truth to power. Yet, it too was caught up in the Beijing Independent’s difficult history, when its 2012 screening was forced to move to the festival’s offices by a not-so mysterious power outage at the official venue. Fortunately, that sort of thing will not happen when People’s Park screens this Thursday at New York’s Asia Society, as part of Cinema on the Edge.

For seventy-eight minutes, Sniadeckie & Cohn will give viewers a continuous, unedited tracking shot tour of People’s Park in Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan. They will capture plenty of life happening, but by its very nature, Sniadeckie & Cohn will not have the opportunity to make editorial judgements later. While the shoot was carefully planned, they were still trusting to providence to deliver interesting people into their field of vision. Sometime fate provides, sometimes it does not. Yet, what makes Iron Ministry so great are all the small but telling conversations and poignantly little moments Sniadeckie captures. That simply is not possible for Park, because it is so locked-into its preset course.

Nevertheless, viewers who are open to Park will still get something back from it, starting with the film’s distinctive rhythm. It is also fascinating to see how the various park visitors respond to Sniadeckie & Cohn’s camera. Some will clearly perform for it, while others are openly wary. After all, there is good cause for surveillance paranoia in the PRC, even more than in post-Snowden America.  Even so, Park does not have the same broad cross-section found in Ministry, because everyone who wanders into their frame has sufficient leisure time on a Saturday afternoon to be there.

People’s Park is certainly an accomplishment in street-level filmmaking all film students should have an opportunity to see. Still, for many it would be better appreciated as an installation one could duck in and out of than as a film to consume in one sitting. Regardless, that is how it was conceived and is usually presented, notwithstanding suspicious power failures. Recommended for patrons of experimental, non-narrative documentaries, People’s Park screens this Thursday (8/20) at the New York Asia Society, as part of Cinema on the Edge. Highly recommended for wider documentary and Chinese cinema audiences, Sniadeckie’s Iron Ministry also starts a week-long run this Friday (8/21) at MoMA.