Chrystel Oloukoï on Self-Portrait: Fairy Tale in 47KM


Chrystel Oloukoï writes on Self-Portrait: Fairy Tale in 47KM, the 9th in Zhang Mengqi’s series of films chronicling life in her ancestral village. 

The premise of Zhang Mengqi’s Self-Portrait: Fairy Tale in 47KM is quite simple: a house is being built by the filmmaker, destined to be a cultural centre, a public space of sorts for the village. She asks the children to help her imagine it. In one of the opening sequences of the film, a little girl perched on a hill proceeds to list all the things to be contained in this house:

“Let me tell you guys, we are going to build, on the hill, a big house! It’s … A blue house. Inside there is a staircase and televisions, and tables, and beds, and things to eat, and things to sit on, and a dance platform, and books and notebooks, and pencils and erasers, and mushrooms, and Chuangchaung grass, and firewood and…”

Embedded in the mundane poetry of enumeration through which children narrate and organize the world is a radical anarchy; one that insists on the connective tissue between seemingly disparate things, on the infinite possibilities that each “and” opens. In ways reminiscent of Valérie Massadian’s wondrous Nana (2011), Zhang Mengqi takes seriously the imaginations of children, weaving together scenes of play, scenes of the construction workers on the worksite, and scenes of the completed house. In this singular collaborative process, adults are not so much at the periphery of the children’s world, observing from a distance, but invited to play as well. Drawing, talking, building, framing, dancing—multiple acts of worldbuilding are constantly wrought together. A 2008 graduate of the Dance Academy of Minzu University of China, Zhang Mengqi’s first artistic home is, in fact, performance in all its dimensions.

Since participating in filmmaker Wu Wenguang’s Folk Memory Project in 2010, documenting experiences of the 1958-1961 Great Famine in rural China, Zhang Mengqi has been a dedicated chronicler of her father’s village in Hebei Province. The village 47KM, named after its distance from the nearest city of Suizhou, is the inexhaustible subject of a tender art of portraiture across nine feature-length documentaries, over a decade-long commitment. The filmmaker interrogates not only historical trauma and memories, but their legacies in ongoing forms of destitution (Self-Portrait at 47KM, 2011; Self-Portrait: Dancing at 47KM, 2013; Self-Portrait: Birth in 47KM, 2017), her own familial history (Self-Portrait with Three Women, 2010; Self-Portrait: Dying at 47KM, 2015), and the unique sociality of depopulated rural places where only the children and the elderly remain (Self-Portrait: Dreaming at 47KM, 2013; Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47KM, 2018, Self-Portrait: Window in 47KM, 2019). Echoes of all these themes intersect in each film within the cycle. In Self-Portrait: Fairy Tale in 47KM, both parents of one of the protagonists, young Lei Jinting, live in Guangzhou for work, more than a thousand of kilometres south away from the village.

Observational slow documentaries in rural China are an expansive genre, perhaps most canonically exemplified in Wang Bing’s Three Sisters (2012), which similarly focuses on the young. Yet, children are rarely given so much autonomy on and behind the camera than in Zhang Mengqi’s experiments in self-portraiture. Multiple cameras—tripod-based, handheld and smartphone cameras—circulate between the hands of the protagonists. The filmmaker records the children familiarizing themselves with the materiality of the camera, negotiating the strangeness of the “machine” as one of the older women calls it and filming the world around them—including the filmmaker herself. Neither silent, nor distant and definitely not austere, this is a luminous cinema, traversed with moments of magical juvenile enthusiasm. Training the gaze to the low frequencies and small eruptions fairytales are made of, Zhang Mengqi’s illustrates slow cinema at its best— less a mimicry of than an art of the real.

Chrystel Oloukoi is a researcher, film critic and curator, broadly interested in experimental cinema, queer cinema and Black continental and diasporic cinema. They are completing a PhD in African and African American Studies at Harvard University with focus fields in Critical Media Practice and Women, Gender and Sexuality. They have written for Film Comment, Metrograph, Open City Documentary Festival, Sight & Sound and World Records among others. They are the co-curator of Monangambee, a nomadic panafrican microcinema in Lagos and a curatorial intern at Canyon Cinema.