“Self Portrait: Birth in 47KM” Directed by ZHANG Mengqi
—Neither Paean Nor Requiem But Just an Expressive Portrait of Life
Last weekend, I went to Yamagata City to see documentary films during the YIDFF, a biennial film festival. This year its program was composed of International Competition, New Asian Currents, Africa Views, Perspectives Japan, and some other screenings focusing on specific themes. I don’t remember how many times I have attended this festival, but my main objective remained the same: to watch as many Chinese documentary films as possible to learn about contemporary China.
Since the late nineties, independent filmmakers have been very active, shooting critical moments in Mainland China as it went through unprecedented developments and disasters. I was always impressed by their enthusiasm for recording landscapes and social environments before and after these drastic changes, to expose what was hidden by authoritarian systems, or to raise awareness of the most vulnerable people in society.
But this year, it was quite a pleasant surprise to find that a slow and quiet movie which was shot in a rural village could be no less moving.
“Self Portrait: Birth in 47KM” opens with a vague image of a vast field blanketed in smoke from a slash-and-burn. In a long take, an old woman, bowed with age, is walking a long way home dragging a withered branch. She talks about her experiences of childbirth, first in 1966, and next in 1968, when she gave birth to twins but had them die as they were premature. She gave birth seven times in all and during every delivery, she says, she was alone and sometimes fainted from pain but took care of herself and the newborn as soon as she regained her strength.
Next, we see a young woman who seems to be doing nothing in particular except for playing with her child and sometimes standing still, looking ahead into space. She also talks about her experiences of working in town and recalls how popular she was among young boys.
An old man, one of the two male villagers in this film, sits on a timber frame at the entrance of his house, smoking in silence. Men look inactive while women are active and talkative.
But the talks by the women are not as much informative as they are lively and powerful. Despite the tragic contents of her story, the old woman does not seem to mourn over the dead, nor is she praised as a strong survivor or a witness of the national history. Though it is interesting to observe the differences in the women’s life stories as they show a remarkable contrast between the old and the young, the past and the present, the rural and the urban, the most eloquent of all is their physical motions and facial expressions.
Without any narration or textual information to learn about, the audience is left in the dark with so much room to feel and interpret for ourselves. Toward the end of the film, the director, ZHANG Mengqi, is physically taking part in more and more scenes. She communicates with the old woman using playful and interactive finger motions and acts with young women in an overall atmosphere of qi gong.
The director has been visiting this village, which she named 47KM, every year since 2011 for the purpose of shooting a film as part of a memory project. After the screening, when I asked her why the old woman in this film told nothing but her story of childbirth, her answer was quite simple: in relatively free talks, the old woman actually kept talking about her childbirth and children, while men in the village would like to tell big tales of wars and politics.
The contrast has turned out to be even more remarkable between men and women.
And then I realized what this film was all about. Above all, it was the representation of a variety of expressions including narrative and performative ones, which in turn represent all modes of communication including nonverbal and invisible ones.
In an incredibly long single shot, a group of chickens were jumping around on the top of a roof or a stone fence by a tall tree. Some chickens had already jumped onto the tree, perching on lower and higher branches. Other chickens on the rooftop were trying to follow them one after another. At last there remained the chicken of the chickens, which kept walking back and forth flapping her wings in vain. The other chickens on the branches became restless with those on the lower branches jumping again up to the higher ones to give room for the last chicken to jump in. After so much hesitation and so many trials, the last one screwed up her courage to jump high enough to the lowest and easiest position left open by her fellows.
This whole sequence illustrates that capabilities of expression and communication are not bestowed on humans alone. It made me realize something very basic which transcends the vulgar power in the human world. Persistent attention to such details in a universal perspective and patience to appreciate microcosmical talks as opposed to big tales could be a source of relentless resistance against oppressive powers whether they are capitalistic, socialistic or monotheistic.
Written by FUKUOKA Aiko