In the 1950’s, during the so-called Hundred Flowers movement, in which intellectuals were encouraged by the Chinese government to air their grievances against the regime, and were subsequently persecuted when they did so, a young dissident named Lin Zhao was incarcerated for her convictions. While in prison, she did not have access to paper, so she wrote her essays and poems—and she had much to say—on the cell walls. As she did not have pen or pencil, she wrote thousands of words in her own blood. She is the subject of Hu Jie’s moving documentary film, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004), which is distributed in the U.S. by dGenerate Films.
Some of the best documentaries I’ve seen in recent years have been brought out here by dGenerate Films. Their subject is Chinese independent cinema and their catalogue encompasses both documentary and feature films. What is especially striking about their documentaries is the amount of overt dissent that they show taking place in China. Whether protesting against the illegal confiscation of their homes by the government and shady property developers in Ou Ning’s Meishi Street (2006) or preventable disasters in Xu Xin’s Karamay (2010), there is a remarkably amount of overt dissident activity taking place in China. And this contradicts the narratives being advanced by both the Chinese government—which is terrified of its own people and seeks to present the façade of a harmonious, economically vibrant society—and the Western media, which tends to focus on a few causes célèbres like Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei, to the exclusion of much broader social movements.
And now a word about Karamay, undoubtedly one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. In 1994, in the Xinjiang town of Karamay, schoolchildren were gathered at the town hall to perform for high-ranking local and regional party officials. When a fire broke out, the children were told to remain seated while the party cadres evacuated. Then they were left to fend for themselves. 325 people died, 288 of them children. Their families felt that they never received proper restitution from the government, and they’ve been protesting at various levels ever since. The film is remarkably austere in its conception: it consists largely of interviews in which the children’s parents sit facing the camera and talk at length about their experiences. There is very little that could be considered overtly cinematic about the presentation. And yet the depth of their sorrow, as it accumulates from one interview to the next, is transfixing and ultimately heartbreaking. One gets the impression that these are people who are tired of not being listened to, and so the opportunity to speak freely and at length is something they relish. And do they ever speak freely! The parents name names of government officials whom they hold responsible for the disaster and they make it quite clear that they don’t care about the repercussions that could come from speaking so boldly, because they’ve already lost their children, and they therefore have nothing else to fear.
So I would strongly advise you to catch a dGenerate film if you have the opportunity. A number of them are available on Fandor, as well as on Netflix and Amazon.