In looking forward to the upcoming events of “Expanding the Frame: Journeys,” a parallel revealed itself to me, whether intentional or not. Besides the theme of journeys, another common thread that binds the films and artists together is the persistence of vision. This diligence spans beyond the artistry and transcends to a humanistic plane. This vision is what takes the artist on the aforementioned journey.
Ellen Kuras, for instance, worked for over two decades documenting the story of The Betrayal. The film was shot in multiple locations and allowed for the characters to grow in age and experience over the course of production.
Similarly, for the film Liverpool , Lisandro Alonso took his time in order for the film to organically reveal itself. Different in approach from The Betrayal, Alonso set out to the location, invested time in understanding the aesthetic and life of the people and place, and then began production nearly a year after his initial visit. In his process, he was able not only to understand a different way of life but also capture it on film because of his meticulous process.
This persistence of vision, this dedication to the people and craft of documenting, is also beautifully apparent in the work of visiting artist Zhao Liang. In his most recent documentary film, he explores and displays what petitioners in China go through in order to potentially be heard.
Since 1996, Zhao has filmed the “petitioners” who come to Beijing from all over China to file complaints about abuses and injustices committed by the authorities. He follows the sagas of peasants thrown off their land, workers from liquidated factories, and homeowners who have seen their dwellings demolished but received no compensation. Often living in makeshift shelters around the southern railway station, the complainants wait months or even years for justice and face brutal intimidation.
This to me is the ultimate journey, the epitome of the title, the theme, the reason they are filmmakers. I feel that it is the relation of the human first, the instinctual element that drives them to document the subject in the first place. The artistry either coincides or comes as an afterthought—second nature. Zhao Liang is definitely no exception to this.
Camera Austria recently did a piece on Liang in which he talks about his audience and his subject—a dynamic that when put together completes the cycle of the artist and the persistence of vision. Below is an excerpt from the interview:
A conversation with Zhao Liang
In summer 2009, following the film festivals in Cannes and Locarno, Zhao Liang also presented his video documentary film “Petition” (2009) during his course at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg. He had been shooting this film for more than ten years, editing 500 hours of footage for one year. The photographer, video artist and documentary film-maker observed and accompanied people from all over China travelling to Beijing, living there in a slum, the “Petitioners’ Village”, to present their case to the Petitions Office, to complain about wrongs done to them at work or in private, and to demand justice, an undertaking that would often last several years. The interview conducted by Hildegund Amanshauser together with Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann focuses on the methodology and historical, social and art historical background of the various productions of the artist, who was born in Dandong in Liaoning province in 1971 and lives in Beijing.
Hildegund Amanshauser: With the aid of the different formats, you reach different audiences, the Chinese and the international public, the film public and the art public. What role do these different audiences play for you?
Zhao Liang: First and foremost, I address the Chinese audience. My work focuses on social reality in China and I would like it to improve something in this society, that’s the crucial thing for me. I hope that the Western public get an idea of circumstances in which people are living at the same time in a different place. I want to make people think. When my work Petition was showing in Songzhuang, the audience was upset, many of them didn’t even know that people lived in such poor conditions in China. But what happened to these people could happen to anyone, everyone has to realise that. The problems I portrayed in Petition are big problems facing Chinese society, problems that will have to be solved in the near future. The important thing for me is that as many people as possible see my film so that they learn the truth. Also, it would be important for “higher levels” to see the film too, maybe it would help them get to know our society better and implement reforms. I even considered sending the film to the chairman or the minister, but I didn’t. I cannot imagine them really watching the film, perhaps they know about the situation and don’t want to change it, or perhaps they can’t. When ordinary people see my film, they find it very exciting, and perhaps that can ultimately sway the government.
—Hildegund Amanshauser, Camera Austria 108/2009
The full interview can be found in Camera Austria 108/2009.
It is this empathy of the human that makes films real, allows for them to permanently reside in our subconscious and consequently become more aware of the world around us.
Zhao Liang will be at the Walker Friday, January 29 at 7:30pm to introduce Petition, and Saturday January 30 for a gallery talk at 3pm followed later that evening by his film Crime and Punishment. For more details, visit walkerart.org