In the several times I met Hanwen Zhang, mostly at some screening event, I distinctly remember him participating regularly, asking questions in a soft voice, his tone never sullen, dramatic or sarcastic like many young artists who are eager to make their presence known. He has equal curiosity about the environment we face and what’s going on in our mind. This balanced interest in both politics and psychology is well exhibited in his first film The First Line of China (2019), in which he revisits his hometown in Northeastern China and the cement factory where his parents worked. In first person narration that typifies the essay film genre, Hanwen explores the discrepancies between personal memories, political rhetoric and documentary images, and between the factory-town’s glorious past (“the first line of China,” or, the frontier of China’s industrialization) and its desolate present. Again, its tone bears no sullen, drama or sarcasm, but rather with an austere honesty, carrying a restrained sense of displacement of someone growing up in the reform era, when the state fails to deliver any socialist promises of workers’ happiness.
The first iteration of Zhang’s on-going project, currently a 29-minute short film Wander in New York, tells another intimate tale of displacement, this time in the pandemic-struck New York City. The main part of the film consists of daily life fragments of three Chinese girls quarantined in their apartment in Brooklyn, joined by one girl’s boyfriend and another’s cat. Although there is neither voice-over nor the director’s writing, Wander still conveys the sentiments of essay films, for they share a preference of the prosaic over the spectacle. The girls cook, eat and chat, about the prolonged struggles it takes to book a flight to go back to China – in one scene the German boyfriend murmurs from offscreen, “It should be a basic human right to go back to your own country,” which leads to a burst of the girls’ collective laugh, as if saying they are simply too used to their country’s unreasonable policies to cry out.
But Zhang does not include all these tensions in the background of his film. His interest in exposition is minimal. There is no “character arc” or emotional drama that conventional documentary filmmakers are keen on seeking. We the audience don’t even know the girls’ names. We do see the girls chatting about the different ways in which the Chinese and US governments handle the pandemic, but for these scenes, the colloquial nature of politics is as important as the content of politics, if not more so. In an amusing scene, one girl uses tarot cards to read the future of China and the US, as if the two superpowers are men in a middle-age crisis: “I read that the US is clear-minded, not in denial.” When watching the online show One World: Together at Home, one girl comments: “this video carries their ideology as well.” Indeed, the One World program celebrates the neoliberal idea of global citizenry at a time when globalization is put on hold and national borders unprecedentedly harden. For the girls there are only increasingly divided worlds. Zhang is interested in the place of politics in individuals’ lives – the uneventful, domestic and secular sides of politics. The essay film as a genre emerged during the “old” Cold War out of an urge by filmmakers to bridge the personal and the political; whereas the essay films of Zhang show how the personal lives of his generation are hypermediated by politics. It is a generation growing up in between the two cold wars, and left in the discrepancies between socialism and capitalism, and between nationalism and globalization. Filmmaking is a way to retrieve personal memories from grand narratives (The First Line of China); or to create communal memories when the condition for collective actions is forfeited (Wander).
Nonetheless, an interest in the uneventful should not be taken as defeatist or escapist. On the contrary, the prosaic daily life in Wander – occasionally adorned by a cat and poetry – is bracketed by two momentous political events in New York City in 2020: the film begins with the mourning of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor punished by his local police for warning about COVID and shortly died from the virus in February; and ends with the George Floyd protests. All three girls, though with masks, can be spotted in the crowd of Chinese mourners, who gather in Central Park – an action that was prohibited within China. In another scene they are attracted by the BLM protesters walking past their apartment, admiring: “The heroic New Yorkers!” They join the rally and enjoy it: “It’s hard to imagine, to walk in the streets and among people.”
Zhang’s treatment of images of social movements can be placed at a nodal point deviating from the tradition of Chinese independent documentary. The latter blossomed since the early 1990s in China thanks to the accessibility of digital video cameras. It enjoyed a period of rapid development until the tightening of ideological control in the past decade. Gradually documentary filmmakers in China are pushed into a quandary of limited choices: they either follow the market demand, creating heartening stories of safe subjects, such as ordinary families and ethnic cultures; or, they engage with social issues which make them and their works vulnerable to pressures from the authorities. Intending to secularize political image-making, Hanwen’s works exemplify the ambition of a new generation of Chinese filmmakers to broaden the spectrum between existing poles of conformists and dissidents.
The sense of displacement has been a powerful incentive for making essay films. Thinking about Chantal Akerman’s wanderings in New York in Letters from Home (1977), and Chris Marker’s wanderings in Japan and Guinea-Bissau in Sans Soleil (1983), I begin to wonder if the essay film is essentially a genre for stateless sojourners. In a way, Wander shows the potential of this genre to form what Arielle Azoulay calls “visual citizenship” – an inclusive citizenry without sovereignty or borders, a citizenry of the precariat of all nations, whether Chinese or American.
Zoe Meng Jiang (she/her) is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. She has published in English and Chinese on topics of gender and feminism, social practice, non-fiction film and moving-image arts. Her recent publications appeared in Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Chinese Independent Cinema, The Brooklyn Rail, Artforum China, and LEAP, among others. She is the co-editor of the “Chaotic Formats” issue of Journal of Chinese Cinemas, and the assistant editor of the journal World Records, published by UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art. From 2018-2019 She was the chief curator at SLEEPCENTER, an independent non-profit art space in New York City.