(Zhao Liang; France/ China; 2009)
The first experience of a glitch with the mechanics of the festival, as the film was shown for the first 5 or so minutes with the wrong ratio size, leaving all the subtitles off-screen and unviewable. After a few minutes of houselights up and audience murmuring, we were treated to a cinema version of pantomime, with a screen image being re-sized digitally while the audience yelled “No, more, more, wait! Yes! No! Bit more! Bit moooorre! Yes!” I was almost disappointed this moment of audience camaraderie was over.
This documentary's depiction of Chinese people forced into homeless lifestyle in order to have their petitions heard at the main Petition Office in Beijing was direct and to the point. Their lives are a near hopeless convolution of bureaucratic hold-ups and rejections, and they often run the risk of physical harm and even death (one segment of the film shows some of the petitioners retrieving pieces of clothing and shattered body-parts of two people who were chased by local government enforcers into the path of a train).
Where the film started to get sidetracked for me was focusing more and more on the drama between a mother and daughter, petitioning for the rights of their deceased husband/ father. Usually this microcosmic focus on the specific narrative of individuals within the larger studied group can reap reawards in documentary film. But, somehow, for me I found this focus on Qi and her daughter Juan to be a little too distracting from the general plight of the petitioners, to the point where I felt it had subsumed the focus of the film. I'm not saying this film lacked power and strength – the experiences of the petitioners hit you like a kick in the gut, but maybe I didn't need the 'softness' of a narrative about mother-daughter relations to ease the kick.