Portraits From The Darkness

Self-Portrait: at 47 km, by Zhang Mengqi, China, 2011 – Paris, March 28, 2012.

All three Chinese movies in competition at the 2012 edition of Festival Cinema du Réel are responding in their own way to the determination of the film-makers to fill in the black holes of Chinese official history and rehabilitate the place of the individual within it. In “Self Portrait: at 47 km” (China, 2011), the young Chinese film-maker and dance performer Zhang Mengqi imaginatively brings together her performing and cinematographic skills into a beautiful documentary about the widening generation gap in modern China.

Setting out to visit her father’s isolated and destitute village to collect testimony about the great famine of 1958-60 among the oldest residents, Mengqi finds herself engulfed in a much more intimate journey into her personal history and her bonds with the village and its elderly inhabitants.

This inner evolution is driven largely by the communications gap that confronts her. Not only is her grandfather reluctant to talk of the famine, that he still considers taboo, but he also remains remote from her, living in a separate world that seems inaccessible to Mengqi, who struggles both with his profound deafness and lack of understanding. As she spends more time with him and other elders of the village, she realises the gap extends well beyond herself and her urban background, to include the younger generations in the village. The elders she meets - all with spectacularly gnarled and misshapen bodies due to years of hardship- are living alone in abject poverty, more or less ignored by their families. They resemble ghosts of a distant past that everybody wants to forget.

As her interest in her grandfather grows, Mengqi masterfully illustrates her journey through her cinematographic choices. Initially using brief, dynamic, hand-held footage of her progress around the village - in which her presence is only alluded to in voiceover or her reflection in various mirrors - and short, close-up interview shots of the elders, she then moves progressively to longer, steadier, quieter footage of intimate moments, where she appears fully in the frame with her subjects.  A recurring motif of feet pacing country lanes - often filmed at nights with a projector lamp and sometimes deliberately out-of-focus – is used throughout the movie as an illustration of her quest for personal identity.

Perhaps the most interesting and powerful element of the documentary is the use of images of a performance and visual installation Mengqi has created based on her video material. Giant portraits of the village inhabitants hanging in a darkened room are brought to light by a spotlight. They seem to emerge from the darkness of oblivion but the way that the posters are rolled up - like a picture cast into the flames - reminds one that these people are now the last remnants of a dying breed.


Frederique Guerin, Special Correspondent, The Global Journal.


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