Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Zhao Liang, The Power of Being Seen


In an essay originally commissioned for our festival brochure, Carol-Mei Barker looks at Zhao Liang’s philosophy and methodology, one of our two ‘In Focus’ directors for the 2019 festival.

A man listens helplessly as his son talks about the pain of heroin addiction. Turning to the filmmaker he says: “our country needs to see this”. Referring to the wider social problems framing the lives of a group of young drug addicts in Zhao Liang’s Paper Airplane (2001), the man highlights a problem of concealment in China, where state sanctioned media heavily controls the national image. In Zhao’s documentary Petition (2009), a community of homeless petitioners appealing injustices ranging from land-grabs to murder, are also rendered invisible due to their dissident status. As such, they speak to Zhao’s camera with an anger and urgency that suggests a true understanding of the power of being seen.

Better known for his more recent feature Behemoth (2015), a poetic visual interpretation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and ode to the industrial workers of rural China, Zhao Liang’s earlier documentaries spanned from the mid nineties to the late 2000s. During this time the filmmaker played a pivotal role in the evolution of China’s ‘New Documentary Movement’, from the earlier, stoically observational styles seen in films by Wu Wenguang and Zhang Yuan, to a more complex and interpersonal style favoured by directors such as Ou Ning and Ai Xiaoming; a style that has been termed “ethically reflective” due to the filmmakers’ direct involvement in the lives of their subjects. In his early films, Zhao’s preoccupation is those trapped within spaces of control – petitioners seeking justice; military police perpetuating a cycle of poverty-inducing laws – lives shaped by socio-political changes beyond comprehension and reason. His films are characterised by encounters that are “ethically reflective” because they display a bond and intimacy with his subjects, shared in the glances and moments of recognition that cut through a handheld, observational style. Paper Airplane was his first feature length documentary; completed in 2001 after five years spent forming a close relationship with a group of young heroin addicts living on Beijing’s societal margins. His interest was initially the city’s emerging punk rock scene, but was drawn to the lives of these young adults whose brutal, self-destructive cycle of drug-use is made more devastating by their dreams of experiencing a new China that promises more, or as one subject puts it “that one small chance to fly”. 

Despite his interpersonal style, much like the wider Documentary Movement his focus remains on institutional spaces, and the power structures within. Crime and Punishment (2007) observes a small group of military law enforcers policing a village on China’s border with North Korea, as they arrest and violently interrogate petty thieves and people barely surviving on the brink of poverty. Themes of violence and fear are presented with complexity: spectres of a history of state militarisation loom in cutaways from the drama of the interrogation room to arbitrary routine police procedures – marching, gun cleaning. The men are soldiers, but are also vulnerable and fallible; victims of the same regime they uphold. In Petition, Zhao persistently returns to Beijing’s makeshift “petition village” for almost twelve years to make visible what Chinese authorities sought to hide. Receiving no official media coverage the petitioners hold their written signs of appeal up to Zhao’s camera; a testament to the power of documentary and the power of being seen. 

Carol-Mei is a writer, filmmaker, and researcher specialising in independent Chinese cinema.