Evidently, the chaos and people-displacement leading up to the Beiijing Olympics even extended as far as the city of Bai Yin in the remote northwest. Technically, residents of Er Dao Wan village were relocated, by hook or by crook, to Bai Yin, to make way for the East-West Gas Pipeline, but the hyper-developing, flag-waving, bulldozing spirit of the 2008 Summer Games hangs over the events captured in director-editor-cameraman Li Peifeng’s documentary, Silver City, which screens as part of the Ai Weiwei-curated Turn It On: China on Film series, still continuing at the Guggenheim.
In the past, nobody traveled to Er Dao Wan without a highly personal reason. Li hails from the region himself. Making ends meet was always difficult, but they mostly pulled together to pull through. Communist Party surrogates have been dispatched to cajole the villagers to relocate, specifically for the pipeline, but also in accordance with the current urbanization policies (so much for “back to the countryside”). These are amusing rap sessions, starting with the tone-deaf Party reps claiming credit for everything under the sun, but ending with defiant hecklers letting them know how they really feel about the CP. The sad thing is most E Dao Wan visitors are resigned to moving anyway, because they understand they really do not have much choice in the matter.
Li captures some moments of such shocking candor, we fear for the safety of argumentative truth-talkers. There is no question a discrete community with its own distinctive identity is getting absorbed by a homogenizing whole. Frankly, the forcible relocation of peoples is one of the classic hallmarks of totalitarian regimes, going back to Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as Mao in the 1960s.
Even though Silver City is a little unfocused at times, Li has an eye for ironically telling visuals. He also vividly conveys a sense of the rugged and remote landscape. It is obvious why several recent neo-Eastern-westerns were filmed in northwestern China. The John Ford of The Searchers could relate to the landscape and the John Ford of The Grapes of Wrath could relate to the people. While not as powerful and damning as Zhang Zanbo’s The Road (scheduled earlier in the day), Silver City is still well worth seeing when it screens tomorrow (12/15), as part of Turn It On, at the Guggenheim.