Film studies: Voice of the people

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 May, 2009, 12:00am

Never mind Lou Ye and his much discussed Spring Fever. Making its bow at Cannes only last Thursday, Zhao Liang's Petition - the Court of the Complainants is the festival entry that will give many Beijing officials sleepless nights. How could it be otherwise with a film that vividly shows bureaucrats treating desperate citizens with at best disgust and at worst outright violence?

Petition depicts wronged ordinary folk - travelling long distances to the capital to lodge complaints with the central authorities - forced to live for months in back alleys to await an official response, while some are assaulted and physically removed by thugs employed by municipal apparatchiks to stop the petitions.

'Of course I'm worried about how the government might react to the film - but those who have actually seen it, those with a sane mind, will know that I'm trying to do good,' says Zhao (right), as we meet beside Cannes' old port the day after the film premiered as a non-competition special entry at the festival. 'This should be seen as a good thing for the government - if [national] leaders see this, they would feel the pain too. If they are really working for the good of the country like paternal figures, they would certainly understand why I made this film.'

Whether government leaders will empathise with Zhao's subjects is unknown, but viewers at the Cannes screenings responded warmly to the film. Petition is an epic, humane exercise focusing on a group so marginalised that not even people on the mainland or in Hong Kong would readily have heard of their plight. Zhao spent 12 years following some of the petitioners' long and unspeakable ordeals after first visiting them in 1996 at the prompting of a friend.

The documentary's title refers to the complaints office in Beijing, which was established by the central government as a channel through which citizens could report their grievances with local, low-level officials. The theoretically benign purpose of the original set-up has long given way to a monstrously inhuman entity. In the documentary, unseen officials are heard barking at complainants to 'shut up', and some actually have their written pleas confiscated before being literally shoved out of the office.

Desperate to have their cases heard, some simply set up camp on side streets around the offices in the south of the capital. A 'petitioners' village' eventually emerged, inhabited by a ceaseless stream of complainants from around the country. For some, the trip has become central to their lives, a fact that could only lead to tragedy.

Take Qi Huaying, one of Zhao's subjects in the documentary. When the film introduces the woman from Jiangsu province in 1996, she has already been making regular visits to Beijing for nine years to protest about the suspicious death of her sailor husband. As the film follows her vain attempts for justice, we see her daughter, Fang Xiaojuan, becoming discontent with her wandering existence; the meek teenager would eventually leave her mother, get married and give birth to a boy. At the end of the film, Zhao films the moment when Xiaojuan - now in her mid-20s - brings her son to meet his grandmother, who has persisted in her regular visits to Beijing.

Some are even more unfortunate: they are abducted and subjected to brutal beatings by thugs employed by the officials being petitioned against. Zhao's film captures how these 'retrievers' (so-called because they are sent to bring complainants back home) threatened a physically handicapped woman, saying she would 'end up in the river' if she did not end her case: 'Our city has millions of people,' the man is heard saying, 'and nobody cares if one disappears.'

Zhao says he had footage confiscated by officials, but still had enough material to put together Petition, which he decided to finally start editing into a documentary after Beijing's officials began demolishing the petitioners' village to build a state-of-the-art railway station in the run-up to the Olympic Games.

The 38-year-old from Dandong in Liaoning, who works as a freelance programmer for a photography art centre when not making independent films, knows very well his film will never be able to be shown publicly on the mainland. 'Maybe at indie film festivals, or some small screenings in bars,' he says. 'But the number of people who will be able to see it will be very, very small.'

It's here that the festival circuit comes into play: after Cannes, Petition will travel to the Locarno International Film Festival, says Zhao, with screenings at next year's Hong Kong International Film Festival nearly confirmed. The BBC will also screen the film, and a limited release in France will follow in November - a logical step given how the film was completed only because of the participation of French cultural organisation Ina, with which Zhao has worked previously.

Zhao laments that his work might have done little to change his subjects' lives - but they have certainly changed his. 'Chinese intellectuals have always lived lives detached from society... and if I hadn't made this film, I might not be able to understand the whole issue too. This allowed me to engage directly with the country's underclass and to know what their real lives are like. For me, it's like a course from the university we call society.'