Thursday, November 10, 2016

DOC NYC ’16: The Road

Leave it to the Communists to give capitalism a bad name. They haven’t done much for the reputation of Keynesianism either. The so-called Second Great Leap Forward was supposed to stimulate the economy through massive infrastructure projects. However, there have 37 major bridge collapses in China since 2007. It is easy to understand how those catastrophes happened when you watch Zhang Zanbo’s The Road (trailer here), which screens during DOC NYC 2016.

For nearly four years, Zhang documented the construction of the Xu-Huai Highway bridge and it is never pretty. The contract means big money to the Loudi Road & Bridge Company, so VP-“Problem Solver” Mr. Meng is constantly at work. When rocks from their blasting punch holes in the roof of a granny’s cottage, he is there on the spot, offering her sixteen bucks for new roofing tiles, take it or lump it.

By Mr. Meng’s standards that was pretty compassionate. Over the course of the film, we see him deny multiple damage claims from the beleaguered local farmers and withhold migrant workers’ wages until they will settle for ten percent of what they are owed. However, he is scrupulously generous with building inspectors and Communist Party officials. Throughout the film, we constantly see him and other Loudi executives distributing the famous “red envelopes” to all the local officials of authority.

The up-front matter-of-factness of Loudi managers discussing the bribe money contained within those red envelops is absolutely staggering. It is also clear Mr. Meng and his colleagues had no idea how their crooked day-to-day dealings would look on-screen or the totality of the impact of all that malfeasance when absorbed in one sitting. As Huma Abedin might say, the “optics” are terrible.

To add further irony, the Hunan region was the one-time home of Chairman Mao, so there will logically be plenty of pageantry and celebration to mark the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party during the shooting. Despite being beholden to the Party for public works projects, the Loudi executives are openly contemptuous of the CCP’s corruption and wasteful inefficiency.

One wonders what sort of rushes Zhang showed his subjects, because the business practices documented in The Road are shockingly exploitative. Frankly, the resulting doc would be considered evidence of criminality several times over in a more just jurisdiction. It is hard to believe this film even exists, much like Nanfu Wang’s courageous Hooligan Sparrow, but the evidence of our senses will not be denied.

The Road is just an unbelievably gutsy and revealing film. Zhang documents the callous and deliberate victimization of villagers and workers over and over and over again. It is a gritty, up-close-and-personal work of cinematic muckraking, but it becomes starkly surreal as the hulking, conspicuously shoddy concrete structure takes shape. Probably the best documentary since Sparrow, The Road is the single can’t-miss film at this year’s DOC NYC. Very highly recommended, it screens this Saturday afternoon (11/12), at the IFC Center.