Niyaz Saghari’s 2020 documentary, VHS Diaries, is the tale of a defiant cinephile subculture that pursued their passion for cinema despite strict government restrictions and the threat of imprisonment in post-revolution Iran. Saghari collates diaries she wrote during the era of video censorship and her personal VHS film archive, alongside interviews with film historians, enthusiasts and ‘filmis’, underground dealers of videos, to tell a story of bravery, community, and an intense love of cinema.
The film begins with fuzzy, golden, super-8 footage of someone recording sound and shots of an extensive collection of tapes and diary entries accompanied by a wistful, melodic soundtrack. A voiceover of the filmmaker introduces the central role cinema has held in her own and her friends’ lives. This opening sets up the film’s personal nature and its foregrounding of memory. One interviewee recollects watching films at family parties with other children; Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming) was a particular favourite of the adults due to its length keeping the little ones occupied for longer. Others recall the joy of watching and discussing films every Tuesday. The filmmaker remembers the excitement of the ‘filmi’ visiting the house with a fresh selection of videos. These personal memories give the film a strong sense of humanity and humour and are highly compelling given their political context.
The mention of these recollections may make it appear that the film revolves around nostalgiafor this era, but as the heroic ‘filmi’ Mr J explains towards the film’s ending ‘[a] fetishistic look at the VHS era is not the point…It’s the situation, the age, the moment that has been captured in your memory’. Far from romanticising this age of underground cinephile activity, the film divulges the horrendous reality of the situation. One interviewee recollects being detained for two nights for possession of a video of a football match, another remembers his imprisonment for three months after being caught with three tapes. Perhaps most striking is a sequence of Mr J sharing paintings he created during his court hearing for possession of illicit tapes and following his time in prison. These dark creations featuring nightmarish figures with absent eyes tell the true cost of the government’s oppressive regime.
The film is constructed as a collage of excerpts from films in Saghari’s personal collection of VHS tapes from the period, home video footage, archival images and footage shot more recently of the interviewees. This wonderful amalgam of different material speaks both to the random and layered nature of human memories and to the aesthetics of VHS tapes during the video ban. Interviewees explain that films were imported by pilots and then copied, meaning most tapes were poor quality, with graininess and sections of glitching. The filmmaker explains that it was common to record random things at the end of the films, such as pop videos. The film can thus be seen as formally meta; not only does it explore the culture surrounding the video tapes but also the materiality, decay and aesthetics of the tapes themselves.
Saghari ends the film by reflecting on changes that have occurred during the four years it took to finish the film. She notes the filtering of the popular Telegram app and week-long shutdown of the internet by the Iranian government in 2019, suggesting this may be the beginning of a new age of media censorship. This lends the film a pertinence and urgency, a sense of looking to the future alongside the past. VHS Diaries offers a deeply personal story of the resilience of film lovers in post-revolution Iran and portrays the power of cinema in creating communities and sparking joy, as well as highlighting the issues surrounding censorship that exist in Iran to this day.
A Colombian Family (Tanja Wol Sørensen, 2020) charts the difficult relationship of Yira and her politically-active mother Ruby against the backdrop of the conflict between the FARC rebel movement and the government in Colombia. Ruby is faced with a tough dilemma as Yira pleads with her to leave Colombia, a decision which would mean abandoning the struggles of her people. Compelling and engaging, this documentary illustrates that the political is never separable from the personal.
The film opens with Yira and Ruby poring over family photo albums, Yira claiming not to know several relatives. Far from inducing nostalgia and happy memories, this activity leads Yira to divulge her resentment and feelings about her troubled childhood, which Ruby denies. This immediately establishes the charged nature of their relationship. Everyday arguments provoked by Yira leaving a towel on the floor and Ruby’s disapproval of Yira’s smoking are shown alongside deep disputes about Yira’s perception of her childhood and Ruby’s stubborn refusal to leave Colombia, illustrating that the rift between the pair is far greater than the usual tensions of a mother-daughter relationship.
Yira and Ruby’s constant disagreement acts as a microcosm for the apparently never-ending political tensions in Colombia. News channels and radio shows discussing the conflict frequently provide background noise and Ruby’s phone is constantly buzzing with communications from other activists. Despite the peace treaty between the rebels and the government, news of killings of social leaders are a nearly everyday occurrence in Ruby’s life, as well as the death threats she receives. The announcement of the results of an election are met with cries of ‘fraud!’ despite a supposed 72.64% majority. Shots of intense natural phenomena – an angry red sky, pounding rain, a seemingly infinite lake, crashing waves – speak to these rising tensions.
The impact that the political situation has had on Yira and Ruby’s lives is depicted with brutal rawness, providing context for Ruby’s resistance to injustice. Ruby’s father recounts the burning of his house by paramilitaries, and archival footage follows illustrating that there were fatalities. He is shown in medium close-up, his eyes brimming with tears. Ruby describes the traumatic kidnapping and sexual assault she endured, similarly framed in medium close-up looking to camera. The murder of Yira’s father haunts the film. Yira’s ritual of running water around the rim of a glass and lighting incense to “communicate” with him points to her intense grief.
However, despite the circumstances and their different feelings about how to respond, Yira and Ruby’s love for one another is undying. The pair are seen joyfully celebrating Ruby’s birthday with Yira’s daughter and later hosting a Christmas party. The film ends with a shot of the pair embracing as they look contemplatively out to sea on Ruby’s last day visiting Yira in Cuba. Ultimately their disagreements are born out of love: Yira wishes her mother to leave Colombia for her own safety while Ruby resists abandoning her work due to her ardent love for the Colombian people. In A Colombian Family Tanja Wol Sørensen deftly weaves a profound story of love in the face of adversity and shines a light on the emotional cost of political conflict.
For my first solo interview it was fair to say that I was extraordinarily nervous, not wanting to create an awkward atmosphere or say the wrong thing, but the second Kiki Yu popped up on my zoom screen, those nerves flushed away. Her kind presence instantly put me at ease, and to know how deeply she cared for the film we were discussing, The Two Lives of Li Ermao, was enough for me to begin discussing such a beautifully told documentary about the life of Ermao.
Content Warning: mentions of drugs, alcohol and death
L: So, the first thing I want to discuss was the personal aspects of the film and Ermao’s life, specifically do you think using the fly on the wall perspective and investigative approach was the best way you could convey that kind of story? Or do you think there was other routes you could’ve gone down?
K: Well, I think there’s definitely a fly on the wall approach but given this is very personal, there are a lot of moments you see directors direct engagement, conversation with Ermao and also, we use a first-person narration. So, it is a kind of participant observation or reflexive, combined with pure observational, so it’s not really just an observation or documentary. there is a lot of flexibility in the film especially through the voice or word, when the director found it difficult to help. you know you want to help so much but just can’t, you just feel powerless, even as someone so close to her.
L: Yeah, I think that the techniques used in the film were necessary, I guess, to portray the story that you needed to portray. Do you think that it was difficult for her with the camera constantly there, did she have any moments where she got overwhelmed with filming? Or is that something she needed up embracing?
K: Well in the beginning when the director started filming, there’s an element of performativity there because Ermao herself is a performer and somehow, she wanted the film to help her to build her career as a performer. And the celebrity she wanted to be in the beginning, the first half an hour, 20 minutes of the film. But gradually you see she takes us more as friends, as someone who actually follows her for so long. So maybe in the beginning there was someone she talked to but gradually you know we follow her for so long and when she had problems shed come to us, shed call the director you know and it’s become a friendship and this friendship also makes it difficult for us to make any kind of judgement and, there’s a lot of sympathy there through the voice over as you can tell, but we also have to see her repeating life, she abused some really nice, that stable life with her boyfriend, then everything kind of went crazy. Again, you know, where they feeling very powerless in a way.
L: Did you know her personally or were you behind the scenes?
K: I knew her but not as closely as the director, If you look at the footage on its own, just the story of how he constructed, there’s a lot of moments you will question the ethics, if you’re close and you will think whether I would’ve wanted it to be filmed this way, because the moments she’s drunk, she’s on drugs, all of those things that we don’t want you to know, give a feeling that we’re exploiting her, therefore we think this first person narration is a really good way to show because we are part and become part of her life in a way. The director definitely became part of her life. You know as friends, as really good friends and we want to construct that friendship in the film as well, to show if someone is so close to her how would you feel? That’s why we added that layer of reflexivity. You can hear the directors voice from behind the camera many times.
L: Yeah, I thought that was quite a beautiful part of the film, was the connection that she had made to the director. I think it was quite wonderful I loved that. Did you feel there were some areas that were too personal or upsetting to put into the final cut of the film with the ethics of it all?
K: Evidently, you know there are very private moments. I think we put enough in the film but we didn’t want to make it too much.
L: I agree, was Ermao quite liberal with what she would have wanted in the film, obviously with her passing she never got to see the final cut. But was there things she had set from the beginning that she wouldn’t want featured? Or was she quite open to anything?
K: Yes, she’s very open, she’s very performative in a way and even in the rough cut we actually had to turn down the performance, we don’t want a film about the performance of her, even when she’s talking about her life, she got so used to talking to people as someone who works on stage. We kind of wanted to turn down that and have more observations, because in the first 10 minutes there’s a lot of her just talking and we didn’t want that, we wanted more observations and we have a lot of footage of that.
L: So, did it take a while for her to snap out of the performative front?
K: She got used to the camera, not trying to show her fancy persona but actually showing her personal feelings, I think when we visit her at her hometown that’s a turning point, because she really just thought, working and trying to build a life and get along with the neighbours and with her family.
L: Did you find that there were some moments that you struggled to sit back and just watch happen, or did you at some aspects, you know, what to intervene and stop production?
K: Well, there was a lot of moments in the footage even, we didn’t put that many in the final cut, but where the director wants to help and interfere, even talk to the police or the landlord, talk to her boyfriend when they’d have a big fight and try to intervene. But we wanted to make it reflexive without intervening too much, yeah that’s the balance we found, in the editing?
L: I wanted to ask, with the editing what was it like to muster down all of that footage into 90 minutes? Was it difficult to cut certain things out?
K: Yes, it was very difficult, the director did a cut of around three or four hours about five years ago, and then the story continued so he filmed a lot more. But that was when I officially got involved as producer in 2015. I found international editors to help structure the film, so we started with four, and cut to two hours. We had an assistant editor in china who helped with construction and making it shorter and a danish editor who cut it to 90 minutes. But yeah, watching those three hours constantly thinking of more footage because in the first cut there was a lot of performance and we wanted it to be more personal and you can tell when she’s not performing and having a normal conversation with you.
L: Do you think you’d want to produce something of a similar structure again? Or was it too personal to recreate with any other story?
K: Well in my last documentary, Chinas Van Gogh’s was also a long production with many, many hours of footage and we cannot take a similar approach to cutting down from 10 hours, to 5 hours yeah but the first-person narration for this film is my own research. So, I’ve watched a lot of films where the filmmaker presents themselves on camera to show the struggles and conflicts between the public and private. The struggles with family and society, so I found it a very useful approach especially to build a conversation, not only with the people you’re filming but also with an audience. And with this film we decided to add a layer of reflexive first-person narration, also because it’s a long-term production and there are some gaps within the years because sometimes, she would stop contacting us, and then usually when she’d have a problem she would come and call the director again. So, we tried to bridge those gaps with narration.
It’s an ethically challenging film to watch and we don’t want the audience to feel that we’re presenting something that’s too in their face. Nobody wants to show that much detail of their life
And nobody wants to watch it in that much detail either, and so we tried to make it more watchable for the audience, and also for Ermao too, because we’re are still in our minds, hoping to resent the rough cut to Ermao, before we finalise the whole film, but then she passed away, so she never go the chance to watch it.
L: Was it like a mutual agreement to watch the film together before she passed? Was it difficult for production to carry on after she passed?
K: Well, we only find out after we finished recording, because we finished editing in soho, London and wanted to show her the film before we finalised everything, and then we found out which was actually difficult to get in touch with her, we eventually got in touch with er family and they showed us the certificate confirming her death.
L: Did you feel any sort of guilt towards producing at the end with how quickly and drastically her life changed towards the end? Or do you think it was more of a celebration of her life, I personally see it as a celebration?
K: I found it very difficult when we edited the film, but I guess the reason I got involved was for the film to be a statement to the LGBTQ+ group in China and wanted to make some intervention to that community. But she died before the film was complete, so in a way every time I show the film, I feel like I can’t do anything for her and the director feels the exact same, and even worse you know because he was so close to her. As a filmmaker you want the film to be impactful, not only to the larger issue but to the specific character you’ve been filming for so long
L: I can imagine, I mean the larger issue itself, is a difficult subject to approach in china. So, I can imagine how horrible it must have been to watch her go through all of that and not come out the other side. What were the initial reactions towards the film?
K: Well, it got a really good response. It was first shown at Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival and we got a really good response from the audience. We did a few screenings in China as well, in Beijing, the British Embassy and at a queer festival in Beijing. The Chinese audience really felt engaged in this story because they were in that community, if you aren’t from the community, you’ll hear the story but you never really know how a transgender person feels, how do they feel that kind of rejection they constantly get from society? The film can really present personal moments and the personal life of someone like her. When I first got involved as producer, I also made the point that I didn’t want it to only be about a transgender character because, it’s a film in the end about love, about how to live on, how to be accepted and how to carry on. We want to make it more universal and for everyone to feel resonated rather than just an expose on transgender.
L: Yeah, it definitely came through as a film about love and acceptance and the aspect of transgender was just an area of her life, it wasn’t her full being which I think was very beautiful. Is that the kind of message you wanted to portray through the film? Do you think you achieved that message?
K: Yeah, I think we are very happy with this version, even though her goal was about having surgery and changing her name before turning back because of the HIV issues. We ultimately wanted the film to be for anyone who is hoping for love, hoping to be loved. So that’s the message, we didn’t just want to portray another transgender character, that’s not the point we wanted to raise, about transgender communities, because eventually, I think everyone is equal and everyone has their minority in themselves. We may not want to emphasise them as minorities but we all have something that we may not feel confident about or that makes us.
Elder’s Corner (2020) follows the mission of British Nigerian musician and filmmaker Siji Awoyinka as he seeks to regain the lost voices of his rich musical heritage. Charting the movements of High Life music during colonial rule, and the nationalistic push for independence to joyous Juju and the pioneering of Afrobeat, Awoyinka reflects the country’s highs and lows through the recording of its most iconic musicians.
Both historical essay and musical celebration, Awoyinka conducts us through a convoluted national identity with a joyous and energetic rhythm. The film states that ‘a singer is a preacher’ who represents and informs his congregation through ‘telepathy in music’. Nigeria’s complex history exists largely through forms of oral storytelling; a country of multiple languages that contains a broad range of music and expression from Afrobeat to Okiki, a praise poem telling a person of their family’s personal history. However, many of these types of music are hard if not impossible to find, and since none of the musicians seemed to have recordings of their old work, Awoyinka set out to find the iconic sounds of his upbringing and, with the help of American producer Bill Lee, relive these old songs of Nigeria.
The musicians speak fondly of their pasts, and despite their country’s hardships, many even remember colonial rule as a time of peace and plenty, when new forms of music from around the world came flooding into cities such as Lagos. From this, High Life, ‘Nigeria’s own music … Lingua Franca of West Africa’ was born, a combination of jazz and Caribbean calypso, pioneered by musicians such as E.C. Arinze. Rex Lawson went on to indigenize High Life music with traditional instruments. In that way High Life music was a unifying force in Nigeria, bringing together a country that was divided by language and culture.
This movement accompanied the political push for independence in 1960, in which music played a huge part in the celebration of national traditions and diplomacy that reflected Nigerian values.
However, this wave of optimism and celebration did not last long. Growing claims of corruption in democratic sovereign Nigeria led to a military coup in 1966, followed swiftly by a counter coup, which imposed martial law. Many people lost all their personal possessions, equipment and instruments. Yet songs such as “Happy Survival” showed hope and faith for the prosperity of life and music through hard times. Elder’s corner gives both poignant and precise historical lessons while flooding the senses with vivid colours and vivacious sounds.
The introduction of many Juju artists reflects the country’s swift desire to move on from times of war. They entitled themselves as Emperors, Kings, Admirals and other high status positions as a symbol of their reclaiming of power and prosperity in Nigeria for the triumph of love and peace over hatred and violence. The film worships these individuals as their names demand; revering them as they relive old feelings of hope.
Their newly recorded music soundtracks the archival footage of Nigeria’s economic boom. Infrastructure was expanded. Drinking, partying and celebrations increased. People were elaborately dressed. It was a time of decadence and musicians were paid handsomely.
But interviews with certain artists reveal inherent inequalities in Nigeria, for instance Monomono spoke of class divide. The Lijadu Sisters struggled to break into a musical world that was itself unequal, due to their gender, despite their enormous talent. Inequality is ever present in the film, yet noticeably juxtaposed to the music that is enjoyed by one and all.
Following this economic boom, a series of corrupt military dictatorships sent Nigeria into a rapid economic decline and many revered musicians faded into obscurity.
This national history is told to a soundtrack of joyous and energetic music, but some interviewees carry a sense of guilt that their generation destroyed their country. However, Awoyina celebrates the positives: ‘after speaking to the musicians…I have a better sense of where I come from, of who I am’. The film reflects the sentiment of an old Nigerian proverb that states ‘a flowing river that forgets its source will very quickly run dry’. Through the celebration of its incredible heritage of music, Nigeria can hopefully be carried to more bountiful waters.
Suspension (2019) charts a journey of human folly in the face of an unrelenting natural world and an unreliable government. It follows the conception and attempted construction of the Mocoa – San Francisco Bypass from 1991 to the project’s indefinite suspension in 2017. Director Simón Uribe Martínez tells the stories of the local people affected by this project and their desire for government help to build safe passage through the treacherous mudslides, avalanches and floods of the imposing rainforest. The film is filled with images of personal strife and struggle as well as an unflinching view of the difficulty and magnitude of the task at hand. But at its core is the resilience and determination of the working people and their hope.
Suspension is framed by two instances of destructive flooding. The first destroyed the Mocoa-San Francisco Bypass’s predecessor in 1991. However, this only forced the hand of the government, who had been implored to replace that road that was so infamous that it was colloquially known as “The Springboard of Death”; a narrow mud track that curved an average of 18 times per kilometre and resulted in casualties every single year. The second flood occurred in 2017, largely destroying the town of Mocoa, leaving the unfinished road to be reclaimed by its natural surroundings.
What is evident in the film’s cinematography is the ever presence of dark, dramatic rain clouds that often dominate the screen and act as an ominous reminder of the continual threat of flooding. The only bright, sunlit images of the road we see are in an animated government video; showing ambitious futuristic plans of towering overpasses over bright forests and glades, watched by sceptical farmers and workers. In fact, this is the closest we get to interacting with the decision makers involved in the project. All the information is provided by local people, many of them already wearied by empty promises and government lies.
The dense natural surroundings are overwhelming. There is minimal use of music, instead a constant hum of forest life and thundering clouds accompany the spectacular landscapes.
Yet when construction begins, the people approach it with vim and vigour. Vast expanses of forest and cloud are divided and contained within geometric shapes while ranks of rock bolts hold the mountain walls in place. Surrounded by foreshadowing clouds, the construction of this overpass looks both awesome and fragile, standing strong yet precariously above a turbulent sea of vegetation.
But as soon as construction begins and hopes are still high, the doubts about an unreliable and absent authority creep back in. The government starts firing workers and production slowly stops as it becomes evident that their promised 130 million dollars has dried up. Many people lose their jobs, and it becomes clear that all the money and effort that has been spent, has been done so in vain.
The film ends in tragedy. The destruction of Mocoa in 2017 takes hundreds of lives, and the bridge that symbolised a hope for a safer life begins to blend back into the environment from which it rose. Rock bolts become perches for beautiful birds, and the bridge a home for insects and plants. However, Martinez ends the film in a mood that is not all doom and gloom. The bridge becomes a strange destination for tourists taking selfies, kids playing and motorcycle stunts. A bizarre memorial to bureaucratic ineptitude for local people to enjoy. For people in the Colombian Amazon, life is often a treacherous road with no beginning or end, a constant challenge, yet one they approach with energy and resilience.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as “a manuscript in which a later writing is written over an effaced earlier writing”. In Matthias De Groof’s sharp and subtle 2019 documentary, Palimpsest of the Africa Museum, the museum is manuscript and the earlier writing its colonial narrative.
The subject of the film is the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, closed in 2013 for renovations and a much needed renewal of its outdated attitudes. The film follows the discussions on the process of decolonisation that occur between museum staff and the group of Afro-descendent advisors employed to guide the process, raising questions surrounding whom the museum is for, whose story it tells, and its mission and purpose.
The film opens with warmly lit, close-up shots of the museum artefacts, immediately setting up their central role in the debates. The lighting and framing of these shots is reminiscent of the 1953 essay film Statues Also Die (Chris Marker, Alain Resnais & Ghislain Cloquet); however, unlike in this film, in Palimpsest of the Africa Museum it is the institution itself situating a reckoning of colonialism in the museum context. This is set up from its beginning as a tour guide is shown describing the violent and dominant histories that explain the presence of some of the museum’s objects to a group of children. This establishes that the museum is not a neutral space and that its contemporary attitudes are at odds with the pseudo-scientific presentation of “primitive” cultures evident within its cavernous halls.
At the heart of the film lie the museum artefacts, portrayed as thinking and feeling, alive rather than static. Stuffed animals are animated through handheld travelling shots. Shots of a figurine being wheeled upon a trolley are followed by shots of the ceiling quickly passing by, the camera adopting the viewpoint of this supposedly lifeless artefact. This notion of artefacts as sentient beings is most evident in the language of the voiceover; objects are personified, they have been ‘awakened’ and ‘want to express themselves’. The thinking behind these devices becomes clear as Joseph Ibongo Gilungula, the General Director of the Institute of National Museums of Congo, explains the deep relationship Africans have with the invisible world, a realm accessible through objects, which exist at the threshold of the tangible and intangible.
The film is constructed from roundtable discussions between the museum staff and advisors and shots of the museum being literally taken apart. A clever dialogue is thus created, as the museum is theoretically deconstructed by the advisors and staff and literally deconstructed by the workpeople. An advisor’s call for no ambiguity in the narrative surrounding King Leopold II, since he is such a clear symbol of colonialism, is intercut with shots of a large, bronze statue of King Leopold II being removed from the museum. Similarly, debate on whether the museum’s new narrative should be polyphonic or didactic follows shots exposing the artificiality of the museum’s previously singular, fact-based narrative. For instance, a woman shown removing the clothing from a life-size figurine comments ‘[i]t’s completely fake’, referring both to the specific exhibit and wider narrative.
However, whilst looking towards the future of the museum, the film also reflects on the past, illustrating the urgent necessity of decolonisation practices. Archival footage exposes the original intention of the museum, to be a witness to the ‘immense effort’ of Belgian colonists in achieving ‘civilization’ in Central Africa through mining. The horrific colonial history of the museum is most glaring in the film’s grave sequences. People are shown paying their respect to the seven Congolese people who died of pneumonia and influenza following King Leopold’s 1897 World’s fair exhibit, in which 267 people were imported and exhibited in a “human zoo”, the original manifestation of the museum. The revelation of the museum’s past adds to the impetus for decolonisation. The film ends with an inter title which reveals the collaboration with the advisors made up just €167,084 of the total €68 million spent on the museum’s renovations and renewal. This wry conclusion suggests perhaps more could have been done. At a time where conversations on decolonisation are occurring in museums and cultural heritage worldwide, Palimpsest of the Africa Museum offers a unique and in-depth exploration of the issues, tensions, and questions at the heart of this important debate.
The film Half Elf (2020) is a piece of cinematic genius, managing to negotiate between lighthearted sweetness and the intense processes of ageing. It sucks us into the raw landscape, chilling us with the brutal waves and craggy rocks, bleak yet hauntingly stunning depictions of the Icelandic town. These aesthetic triumphs make the warmth of Trausti and Hulda’s house even more inviting. The film opens with a phone conversation between the protagonist Trausti and his grandson, the filmmaker. He explains a dream in which elves make him sing for them, all through the night. Trausti doesn’t stop singing throughout the film. It is poetically punctuated by these rhythmic, almost chant-like folk tales he sings of the lost sailors who never reached home, cats, fjords and the winds. Jon Bjarki Magnusson intricately weaves together a ‘modern Icelandic fairytale’, inviting us to explore the life of the lightkeeper preparing for death and his wishes to integrate ‘elf’ into his identity.
The delicate soundscaping of this film draws the viewer into a dream-like state as we are invited into the normality of the everyday existence of Trausti and his wife Hulda. We hear the radio, telling tales of elves and their limericks, the songs of the couple, the ticking of the clock, the hum of the electrical appliances and the scuffle of their shoes on the floor. You become part of their world.
We see them together, their slippers almost touching under the table as a delicate portrayal of intimacy. It is a privilege to witness their relationship and be invited in. Hulda doesn’t like the attention, telling him he’s a show-off. This comes to a head when we see Trausti waving his arms around. She asks what he’s doing and he replies that it’s his sailor dance. Her dismissive response was to ask him if it’s supposed to be funny and that it has left her speechless. Trausti replies ‘it’s good she’s speechless’; painting a picture of the domestic familiarity of their 70 years together, arguing about the future of books and gossiping about neighbours.
Jon Bjarki Magnusson successfully manages to capture the beauty of the everyday and the challenges of elderly life showing Trausti as he struggles to turn on the digitised cooker, falls asleep at the table in the mornings and complains of worsening hearing. This does what I believe anthropology is so well placed to do, allowing us into other realities and leading to new kinds of quiet and inner understandings.
This film is a complex parley between the light hearted adolescent-like excitement and charm of the elderly lightkeeper, as he explores his elf identity. Showing us his playful energy, he remarks that when he was younger he decided he would always be ‘a little fool’, never a ‘sage old man’. He comes across as lovable and comedic, in eccentric yet perfect moments such as the scene with him lying across a bench outside playing with a particularly fluffy cat as he tells us that an Elf told him he will not drown in the ocean.
The opposition between the domestic regularity and the encounters with the nurses and clinical hospital environments is where we are reminded of the fragility of an individual near the end of his life. Towards the end of the film you see him in his hospital bed as he explains to the camera in a poignant moment, ‘these tears just fall by themselves, I am not asking them too’, and we are confronted with the realisation he will soon be leaving his earthly body.
Running alongside this joyful presentation of a sprightly man, is a more intimate engagement with a man preparing for his death. We hear about and are shown his coffin, witnessing his textural engagement with it as he admires the craftsmanship of it’s smooth wood. It comes across as strangely unremarkable, like shopping for a car or a coat. Yet, we are reminded that when the coffin seller says not to worry as the coffin is waiting for him, it is waiting for his death. This is further accentuated when he explains ‘the worms will naturally eat your flesh’, hauntingly reminding us of his earlier comment ‘I love this life and don’t want to die’. Producing a skillful emotional engagement, this fear sits deep in the pit of our stomach throughout the film. There is the realisation that none of our bodies are safe from decay, no matter how young at heart we are. The dread of an end point culminates as we witness the funeral of the Half Elf we’ve grown to love throughout the film through Magnusson´s personal portrayal of his grandfather. Yet, there is a bleak calm in the moment of his burial as his kin lower him into the snow-clad ground in the blizzard. We are invited to attend his 100th birthday celebration and his final identification as the ‘Grand Elf’.
This film is beautifully intimate and personal, showcasing the merits of how ethnographic film can allow us into homes, families, life and death. The slow depiction of daily life feels comforting, as if we are invited to come sit at their table, look at their photos, listen to their stories and the radio, to sing along. With an almost meditative quality, we rest here and dwell. It felt like a privilege to be taken on the journey as Trausti embarks towards his earthly death. We are thrown into the past through Trausti’s stories of his grandmother and enchanted rocks, and dismay from his wife about his elfish fascination, trapped between old and new, just as he is in the liminal period between life and death.
Trausti’s body looks almost asleep in his death and as we watch the lighthouse call out into the night for the last time, leaving us reflecting on our own existence, whilst finding the beauty, fragility and fun in life, perhaps encouraginging us to invite out the little elfish foolishness we harbour within ourselves.
Hengdian Dreaming attends to rural migrant workers who live in Hengdian, Zhejiang, China, the world’s biggest movie studio city. Multiple forms of media-related work take place in Hengdian: big real-estate tycoon investing in movie production, local governor promoting film-related tourism, state promoting nationhood on TV, and rural lumpen migrants worker seeking jobs of extra actor in historical drama while earning money by live streaming Hengdian life on digital platforms like Huoshan and Douyin (Tiktok). For these migrant workers, also known as hengpiao (Hengdian drifters), livestreaming for money in a production center for historical drama creates new media worlds that allow them to remake their relationship to labor. One key contrast that allows them to make this distinction is their experiences in other jobs related to export-manufacturing industries that have stimulated growth in China over the last forty years. Though all the protagonists in the documentary come from a rural background, and most of them have previous experience of working in these industries, I describe them as “migrant workers” in this review with hesitation. As the documentary unfolds, the feeling of hesitation grows stronger.
This hesitation might be a product of my years-long conversation about labor in China with Momin and our agreement with Marxist perspectives of political-economic trends in China, which see the decline of industrial profitability and overcapacity of the manufacturing sector turning many migrants superfluous to waged labor. But while many migrants in Hengdian could be described as labor becoming redundant to industrial production, the documentary does not represent hengpiao in such a convoluted way. The film carries out a very basic ethnographic task, simply asking people what they want in Hengdian. In Hengdian, the people who self-identify as hengpiao pursue a life that is hard to be comprehend by many seminal accounts of “Chinese migrant workers” which often emphasize exploitative wage-labor relationships and rural-urban differentiations. To be sure, this is not to say that those academic accounts are false. Social stratification remains a serious problem in China, as migrants are often caught between inequalities in the distribution of social welfare and a type of double-bind accumulation resulting from the commodification of land and labor (See Chuang 2015). However, as shown in the documentary, hengpiao do not necessarily understand their lives in the same way as other groups of migrant workers studied by social scientists.
In Hengdian, the notion of “dream,” rather than an underprivileged state of exploited rurality, is the category deployed by migrants to understand the value of working in Hengdian. That is, the dream about becoming an actor while promoting oneself on live stream platforms is both a motivation and outcome for what these migrant workers consider as productive activities now, as compared with ideas about labor productivity defined by labor regimes in other sectors of the economy. Paradoxically, Hengdian life offers unemployed migrants a place for self-realization of individual value as well as a place to earn money (20:56). Achieving both of these goals at the same time seems to be a major problem for hengpiao. The most prominent case of contradiction in the film is the calligraphy-double Wang He. As a self-trained folk artist,Wang is hired as a hand-double to write calligraphy in historical dramas for leading actors. In the opening minutes of the film, Wang appears almost like an outsider of Hengdian who casts judgement on migrants in Hengdian. It is precisely because of his judgement he inserted the Chinese character for dream (梦 meng)in the poster shown in the opening scenes to differentiate himself from other hengpiao who he thinks are just lazy and lack dreams. (02:37). Like many people whose talent remains unrecognized by society (怀才不遇)[i], Wang constantly looks for the actualization of his value by practicing calligraphy in Hengdian. But he also believes that efforts and time he invests in building up calligraphic craftsmanship cannot be reduced to several hours of remunerative live-streaming work, bemoaning that his time practicing calligraphy is worth more than a bowl of noodles .After repeated interventions from Zhang Xiaoming—the owner of the Good Luck Photo Studio who shares screen time with Wang He, who show Wang some reasonable calculations about the potential monetary value of live streaming, the same Wang He decides to live stream his calligraphic works online, ending up joining the evening crowds of live streamers on the square, with the scroll about Hengdian drifter’s dream in hands. Though it is unknown whether Wang keeps on live streaming afterwards, his mental journey shows how real Hengdian dream is for drifters in their attempts to find socially validated ways of economic and cultural self-realization.
As one can see in several scenes in the documentary, people live by performing what would have been otherwise considered peculiar behavior in other places. One hengpiao states this explicitly: in another city, the pressures of your job might make you feel like ranting to yourself on the street, and others might think you’ve lost your mind. But not in Hengdian. In Hengdian, a mirror city – by borrowing the concept from Dai Jinhua – where social relations are mediated through different cross-referencing visual representations in media, dream appears to be a theme that binds different activities together. For example, the film hints at the importance of historical drama in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) view of their historical mandate. ( 03:44) is in view in the town. To facilitate the production of historical dramas as the CCP became more invested in representations of Chinese history, Hengdian Group built replicas of ancient Chinese megastructure for various historical dramas, for instance, the Qin Emperor Palace in Zhang Yimou’s Hero (09:32). Indeed, replica architectures in Hengdian recently appeared in CCTV’s documentary General History of China, the narrative of which reflects the state’s attempt to rejuvenate the China dream, a project Chinese New Left scholars describe as a synthesis of the multi-ethnic Chinese nationhood, the political community of China, and the great historical continuity under the party state (tongsantong). But this view also informs the desires of Old Jiao, a long-time hengpiao who wants to direct a drama in Hengdian and has a dream of the future synthesis of Chinese civilization and world peace that is more ambitious than the CCP (23:28).
In other words, hengpiao make their own dreams, but they do not make them as they please. The repeated invocations of dreams in the film reminds me of anthropological research the Dreaming’s role in mediating cosmological orientations, social belonging, and ideas about productive activity among indigenous groups in Australia (Munn 1970; Myers 1990). The Dreaming is not just a series of stories or (as a neuroscientist might say) a pattern of neurological electric flow in the brain. Dreaming mediates a series of transformations between cosmological entities and their material forms, a social activity that requires and leads to the reproduction of social relations. The Dreaming guides people’s actions and binds them together as they create what they perceive as a productive reality in day-to-day life.
While there are clear limits to linking concepts derived from ethnographic studies of Australia to China’s high capitalism in the twenty-first century in an ahistorical fashion, the insight about the reification of dreams offers a departing point to rethink the argument made by Pun Ngai in her classic ethnography about Chinese factory workers (Pun 2005). In that book, Pun had already adopted the dream as a sociological fact to explore the inspiration of becoming a modern worker. Motivated by these dreams, Chinese migrant workers in the 1990s participated in the (re)production of global capital, a process that in turn transformed material forms as well as ideas about a desirable life within proletarianized cultural worlds. The Hengdian dream also shares with the factory dream the same interests in work, labor time, monetary mediation of social relations, and self-expanding accumulation of profit, some basic categories of capitalistic value production that create the material world we live in.
But there is a difference. In Pun’s interpretation, the dream still belongs to the realm of social reproduction: it is an aspirational avenue for migrants to find a way out from the old family ties and, at times, from the exploitative wage-labor relationship in factories. In other words, Pun’s factory workers are motivated by a dream. In Hengdian, for rural migrants who are surplus to industrial production, dream is not just an idea to live by but itself a form of remunerative media work in China’s emerging digitized economy. In a sense, the cultural-economic dynamic within Hengdian dream of acting and live streaming inverses the popular Chinese saying that “One cannot live on dreams alone” (mengxiang buneng dang fanchi 梦想不能当饭吃).
The question about the future of migrant workers in China is not only of academic significance but also of political and economic importance. Admittedly, Hengdian Dreaming does not offer a clear answer to this question. It also does not give much information about how to understand the social organization or class position of Hengdian drifters, which are crucial for understanding the overall standing of the surplus population. But it is unfair to place this heavy duty on one documentary focusing on the media worlds of unemployed migrant workers. After all, class position, in many cases, only become explicitly formed in moments of political struggle or generalized economic turmoil, and both are absent in the film. What Hengdian Dreaming does —by virtue of its ethnographic approach — is to successfully give a new view on the meaning of digital platforms among migrant workers. The dream in Hengdian, enabled by the digital economy, is not delusional and fake, as drifters live on the dream by participating in remunerative works of live streaming. The ways in which hengpiao organize the activities of live streaming and acting in relation to the practices of self-valuation indicate that Hengdian dream cannot be simply understood in terms of alienation and exploitation that characterizes the 1990s’ “living-by-the-dream” life in factory shop floors. The film shows platforms are also not necessarily a cultural space of resistance in which rural migrant workers challenge their underprivileged state under rural-urban division. These are all important for understanding the historical transition of the figure of rural migrants within capitalist social relations in China, a topic that concerns scholars of modern China. Beyond this, the documentary also offers some ethnographic portal and empirical ground for further reflecting about the relationship between digital technology and work under capitalism. Having a look at this issue is timely in an era when a livestreaming platforms owned by a Chinese company plays a central role in the new Cold War between a “job-losing” America and the “technology-thief” China, and in a time when the culture of overwork prevalent in China’s booming digital industry becomes a trigger of social grievance among young office workers
Chuang, Julia. 2015. “Urbanization Through Dispossession: Survival and Stratification in China’s New Townships.” Journal of Peasant Studies 42 (2): 275-294.
Dai, Jinhua 戴锦华.1995. Jingcheng tuwei: nvxing dianying wenxue 镜城突围： 女性・电影・文学 [Breaking out of the Mirror City: Female, Cinema, and Literature]. Beijing: Zuojia chubanshe.
Munn, Nancy D. 1970. “The Transformations of Subjects into Objects in Walbiri and Pitjantjatjara Myth.” in Australian Aboriginal Anthropology: Modern Studies in the Social Anthropology of the Australian Aborigines, edited by Ronald Berndt, 141-163. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies & University of Western Australia Press.
Myers, Fred.  2016 “Burning the Truck and Holding the Country: Pintupi Forms of Property and Identity.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, no. 1 (June 1, 2016): 553–75.
Pun, Ngai. 2005. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
[i] For more details about calligraphic as a bodily skill constitutive of a type of Chinese masculinity associated with literary-art-based authority, see Angela Zito’s ethnographic film Writing in Water, which shows how retirees in Beijing—whose lives were previously organized through the socialist danwei (work-unit) system—spend their newfound free time in public parks practicing water calligraphy and creating communities of self-cultivation.
John Melville Bishop is a documentary filmmaker known for the breadth of his collaborations, primarily in the fields of anthropology and folklore. He has worked with Alan Lomax, John Marshall, and extensively with the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. From 1995 to 2008, Bishop taught courses in video production, choreography and the camera, ethnographic film, and visual thinking in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 2005, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Visual Anthropology.