China, 87. The Others

Will Tizard from Variety on the Opus Bonum selection China 87. The Others by Violaine de Villers

China, 87. The Others (Chine 87, Les Autres,Jean-Pierre Outers, Violaine de Villers, 2017)

The documentary footage of China, 87. The Others, a compilation of home videos shot on streets and rural settings of the subject nation, is deceptive for its apparent simplicity.

Belgian writer, traveler and development expert Jean-Pierre Outers, who has lived Asia for the past 20 years, penned the book that forms the basis of this film.

In it, we follow the film journey of director Viollaine de Villers and Outers around the rough streets, construction sites, mountain greenery and villages of China during the late 1980s, slowly becoming accustomed to a time capsule of life cut off from modern times. Although only filmed a bit over three decades ago, the pre-internet society only just beginning to rise as an economic superpower is like another world.

A population of workers who seem remarkably untroubled by the filmmaker’s camera glides past on bicycles while in a marketplace, sellers hawk live turtles, eels and salamanders. Workers toil on construction sites, shoveling earth and stones into baskets carried by hand out of the foundations, using methods not much changed since medieval times.

Between sequences of handheld standard-def video we see transitional intertitles placing the toil, passivity and simplicity into context.

“To write is to conceive the world in coupling,” we read as we watch a calligrapher creating masterful Chinese characters by inking his bare palms.

The sequences capture unadorned life, somehow dignified even as people work to the point where no one has any trouble sleeping in public. Ancient ritual survives the turmoil, as ghostly figures practice Tai Chi, their fluid movements describing the arc of time and tradition.

No narrator or subtitles are needed, somehow for us to be able to connect with the folk who lived in the shadow of the empire just before it became the next great hegemon.

“Welcome to China, freed from any historical or political perspective,” de Villers has said about China, 87. “We are confronted with the Otherness of Chinese culture. We see in this film the opposite of the picturesque – a slice of quotidian life that may be banal, but still fascinates us.”

The background of de Villers a Belgian director and audiovisual artist in her 70s, informs the film’s structure and unadorned material. With a score of other short films to her credit that examine societies in just such a bare-bones way, she’s as much a philosopher as filmmaker, fascinated with issues of memory, art and political history.

The work here would be called by some an observational documentary, a term often used to describe the thorough, unstaged work of documentary maestros such as Frederick Wiseman. But the seminal filmmaker said recently at an IDFA screening of his 1970 documentary “Hospital,” a study of New York’s Metropolitan Hospital Center, that he dislikes that term.

As a Variety story conveyed it, “although his style is famously non-interventionist, in contrast to the more populist style of America’s Michael Moore and the U.K.’s Louis Theroux,” the decriptor “observational” is hardly apt, said Wiseman, “because for me that suggests that you just set up the camera in the corner of the room and let it run forever. It smacks of anthropological filmmaking, which I don’t think I do. These movies are made up of hundreds and thousands of choices. So you have to observe, you have to see what’s going on, but you also have to choose what it is you’re going to shoot, the way you’re going to shoot it and the way you’re going to use it. That’s not observational. Observational, to me, is too passive a term.”

It’s likely the creators of “China, 87,” after their long sojourn through urban, rural and social landscapes, having carefully selected these images, would agree.


Will Tizard 

Will Tizard is a Central & Eastern Europe correspondent for Variety. Variety is the premier film industry trade journal, covering the global production, distribution and exhibition sectors, plus TV, the web and the stage, and its reviews are an important source for buyers worldwide. He is a senior journalism professor at Anglo-American University in Prague, he is completing production on Buried, a documentary following the fight for the return of stolen Holocaust-era Judaica in Russia.