Cerebral Celluloid:Challenge your brain and preconceptions with these four documentaries

Article by Patricia Pieterse

Last Train Home (2009)

71This is often considered one of the best and most illuminating documentaries about China. Directed by Lixin Fan, this follows a small family of migrant workers over the course of a few years, as they work their asses off and battle the crowds every year at Spring Festival to go back to their home town. There’s family drama galore, and a lot of depressing footage of the grim reality a lot of people face. I was sceptical about its veracity when watching it, and still am to some degree, but, nonetheless, it’s an interesting slice of life piece about the way many are forced to live.

Behemoth (2015)

72If I had to sum up this film, by Liang Zhao, in one word, it would be “languorous”. It moves at a glacial pace, showing the viewer long, unbroken shots of industry and the lives of workers, occasionally punctuated by a narrator reciting poetry adapted from Dante. At first glance, it could seem pretentious, with its landscapes containing a single nude person in the foetal position and long, unflinching close-ups of dusty mineworkers (not to mention the poetic musings), but it’s the kind of film that sticks in your mind. It manages to comment on the impact of mining on the environment, the conditions of workers and the futility of it all with no dialogue or explanation.

The Chinese Mayor (2015)

73It feels like most of the documentaries I chose this month are related to the hot issue of China’s industrialisation. This one, by Zhou Hao, is no different. It follows the tribulations of Geng Yanbo, the mayor of Datong, in his attempt to turn the city into a cultural centre by restoring a city wall. Unfortunately, the process involves relocating half a million of the city’s residents, so the project is not without dissidents. While the piece is mostly pro-Geng, it also shows the residents who are unhappy with the way they’re being booted out. There are threads that crop up and are never addressed again, but other than the odd structure, this is a nice glimpse into the soul-crushing bureaucratic machine.

Please Vote for Me (2007)

74As part of a series on democracy, this documentary by Weijun Chen follows the cutthroat world of a third-grade class monitor election in Wuhan. It packs a lot into its relatively short running time (just under an hour), including smear campaigns, tactical advisors, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The introduction to the piece describes it as a microcosm of democracy and it truly is. Many of the tactics seem underhanded, but there’s nothing the children do that isn’t currently being done by politicians the world over, although the pros manage to give it a sheen of pretense. Watch it to learn a little bit about Chinese schoolyard politics, and a lot about democracy in general.

Patricia is a voracious watcher of movies and also handles copy-editing duties for Xianease.