Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Observer: A Profile of Hu Jie

You can’t say we weren’t warned. Hu Jie’s documentaries have exposed the CCP’s crimes against humanity and their subsequent censorship reveals the regime’s determination to cover-up the past. Unfortunately, we have been too interested in making money to pay attention. Hu has been like a Chinese Claude Lanzmann, but he has had to live under the regime whose past brutalities he documented. Rita Andreetti profiles the artist-filmmaker and captures a further incident of Chinese state censorship against him in The Observer, which releases today on DVD, with Hu’s Spark.

The Observer pairs up particularly well with Spark, because Andreetti’s film begins with the permanent closure of the Beijing Independent Film Festival and the confiscation of their complete archives, because of the fest’s plans to screen Hu’s film. Shockingly, this has happened to other festivals that planned to screen Hu’s work—usually on the down low.

Andreeti surveys Hu’s body of work, giving special consideration to Spark (exposing the mass starvation of The Great Leap Forward), In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul (revealing abuses of the Anti-Rightist Movement), and Though I Am Gone (chronicling the personal tragedies of the Cultural Revolution). She also briefly sketches out Hu’s biography and gives his eternally patient wife a chance to have her say.

However, probably the most newsworthy aspect of The Observer involves the mounting of Hu’s first public exhibition of his paintings and prints. In fact, Hu originally trained as a painter, but turned to non-fiction filmmaking as a better means to investigate China’s secret history. However, as the Party restricted his ability to produce and distribute films, Hu returned to his original outlet, creating a series of woodcuts addressing the Great Leap famine, titled Let There Be Light. They are extraordinarily powerful visually (one illustrates a recent New York Review of Books piece asking “Who Killed More: Hitler, Stalin or Mao”)—so much so, the local Party apparatus reverts to its usual censoring ways—as viewers will plainly see and hear.

So, give Andreetti due credit. She set out to create a portrait of a censored artist and managed to record it happening in real time. That’s pretty gutsy too. Admittedly, she was not running the same risks as Hu, but her resulting film will surely complicate any further projects in China. Yet, it was worth it, because The Observer is clearly of work of great honesty and integrity. It is a documentary worthy of its subject—and a timely one, given the way the CCP is trying to apply its media censorship in other countries. Along with Spark, it provides a wake up call regarding the regime’s practices (but it may already be too late for Hong Kong and East Turkestan). Very highly recommended, Spark and The Observer release today (6/30) on DVD, from Icarus Films and dGenerate Films.