They might make for demanding cinema, but those long takes do not lie. They unblinkingly show reality as it is and force viewers to acknowledge it. Ostensibly, the subject is Diaoyutai, the small village 47 kilometers from Suizhou, where documentarian Zhang Mengqi’s father and grandfather lived. Her latest doc is not just the eighth installment of her Self-Portrait series, but also part of the larger ethnographic Folk Memory Project. Memories can be painful for Zhang’s interview subjects, but they are critical for understanding how Diaoyutai particularly and China in general reached their current states. Zhang introduces viewers to several residents in Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM (trailer here), which screens during this year’s RIDM: the Montreal International Documentary Festival.
It looks like an abandoned farm house, but apparently an old woman lives there. An old slogan (presumably from the Cultural Revolution) adorns the outer wall, but it is interrupted by a structural gap, so it now reads: “only … ism can save China.” For the old woman, it is especially, painfully ironic.
Throughout the film, she will explain how her late son was repeatedly wronged by corruption and a staggeringly unjust legal system. The unfortunate Jinhu sounds very much like Yang Jia, whose long-suffering mother was the subject of Ying Liang’s When Night Falls. He was also pushed too far and then convicted and imprisoned by a system that protects exploiters instead of victims. However, after Jinhu had already served several years of a life sentence, the state then retroactively applied the death penalty to his case.
Hearing Jinhu’s mother give her oral history is absolutely devastating. Arguably, Zhang’s aesthetic decision to film her in almost excessively wide shots lessens some of the emotional impact, but it also emphasizes how small and powerless she is in contemporary Chinese society.
There is no question her segments are the strongest parts of the film. However, Zhang periodically visits with other villagers. They are either very young or very old, because every working-age adult has left in search of employment elsewhere. We meet a young teen who is bright and a rather talented artist, but we can tell she is approaching the point when she too will have to leave, if she is to have any kind of future. Yes, there are also long, quiet, almost entirely still shots of village life.
Frankly, Sphinx (a reference to the act of asking questions) can be a challenging experience for viewers, but just by documenting the testimony of Jinhu’s mother, Zhang has made a valuable contribution to both cinema and history. RIDM also deserves a lot of credit for programming it, thereby keeping it in the public consciousness. Highly recommended for hardcore cineastes, Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM screens this Wednesday (11/14) and Saturday (11/17), as part of this year’s RIDM.