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.





more articles from a section:  Review

F2.18The Silence of Others This film by Almudena Carracedo and Rober Bahar, produced by the Almodóvar brothers, screams out for justice for the unpunished crimes of the Franco régime
F2.17Máme tlakovú níž / Richard Müller: Nepoznaný
F1.17Also Known as JihadiWill Tizard from Variety on the Opus Bonum selection Also Known as Jihadi byEric BaudelaireWill Tizard
F1.17The Lust for PowerWill Tizard from Variety on Opus Bonum selection The Lust for Power by Tereza Nvotová (world premiere).Will Tizard
F1.17On the Edge of Freedom Sydney Levine from SydneysBuzz on First Lights selection On the Edge of Freedom by Jens Lengerke and Anita Mathal Hopland (central European premiere). Sydney Levine
F3.17Acts and IntermissionsColin Beckett on Opus Bonum selection Acts and Intermissions by Child Abigail (internationale premiere).Colin Beckett
F3.17Enticing Sugary Boundless or Songs and Dances about DeathColin Beckett on Between the Seas selection Enticing Sugary Boundless or Songs and Dances about Death by Tetiana Khodakivska and Oleksandr Stekolenko (world premiere). Colin Beckett
F5.17The WallNick Holdsworth on Opus Bonum selecetion The Wall by Dmitry Bogolubov (world premiere).Nick Holdsworth
F4.17MissingDominik Kamalzadeh from Der Standard on Opus Bonum selection Missing by Sharifi Farahnaz (world premiere).Dominik Kamalzadeh
F1.17Day 32Colin Beckett on Opus Bonum selection Day 32 by Almeida Andre Valentim (international premiere). Colin Beckett

starší články

F4.17DOK.REVUE
October 28, 2017


from current issue:

New releaseOn Adultery as Mirror of Our Own SelvesBarbora Jíchová Tyson, a visual artist, who has been living in America for seventeen years, has finished her first feature film Talking About Adultery this year. According to the author, the film is an essayistic collage and represents a perspective on humanity, which holds the mirror up to us all.Barbora Jíchová TysonNew releaseFREMWhat is it like to shoot a film in Antarctica? Is it possible to get into the head of artificial intelligence? And what is GAI? All this is described by the documentarist Viera Čákanyová in the text she wrote about her new film FREM in dok.revue.Viera ČákanyováNew releaseHavel Speaking, Can You Hear Me?What were the two last years in the life of former dissident, ex-president Václav Havel like? How did he reflect on the fact that he was gradually leaving this world? Documentarian Petr Jančárek talks about his upcoming documentary film capturing the final stretch of Havel’s, life, the rough cut of which was shown at the Ji.hlava IDFF in the Studio 89 section marking this year’s anniversary of the so-called Velvet Revolution.Petr JančárekThemeEmerging Czech female documentariansIs there a new tide of emerging female documentarians in Czech cinema? What’s fascinating about the work of Czech female filmmakers like Johana Ožvold, Greta Stocklassa or Viera Čákany?Will TizardSportHow to Teach Documentary FilmmakingThis year’s Ji.hlava IDFF offered a panel discussion on how documentary filmmaking is taught in Visegrad countries. Methods used to teach documentary filmmaking in different V4 countries were discussed by lecturers from selected schools. Vít Janeček introduced documentary courses at Prague’s FAMU, Attila Kékesi represented Hungarian University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, Viera Čákanyová talked about study programmes at Slovak Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava – VSMU, and Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz discussed documentary education at National Film School in Lodz. What emerged from their fruitful discussion? Vít Janeček, Kamila Boháčková, Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz, Attila Kékesi, Peter KerekesPoemThe reanimation of Mr. PuiuKhavn De La CruzReviewA Place to Take a BreathThe film journalist Janis Prášil compares two documentary portraits of this year – Forman vs. Forman and Jiří Suchý: Tackling Life with Ease on his blog.Janis PrášilReview Music as a Lag Between Death and InfinityJanis Prášil ruminates on Solo – this year´s winner of Ji.hlava Czech Joy section – which comes to cinemas. Did the picture succeed in depicting the inner world, so hard to portray, of a mentally ill musician? And what if it is the illness itself which enables people to take a look into the grievous core of being?Janis PrášilReviewOn Sounds by ImageThe film journalist Antonín Tesař writes about the new film The Sound Is Innocent directed by Johana Ožvold.Antonín TesařInterviewGreta Stoklassa: I Read Rather than Preach the RealityAn interview with the director Greta StoklassaKamila BoháčkováInterviewTo Surprise MyselfWhile the main competition at the International Karlovy Vary Film Festival does not feature any Czech title, the festival’s documentary section has one Czech film to offer: A documentary road movie by Martin Mareček entitled Over the Hills exploring the relationship between a father and a son, as well as the distance that separates us from others. Unlike his previous socially engaged films, the latest title provides a personal and intimate insight. But as Martin Mareček put it in his interview for dok.revue – what is intimate is universal. Marek Hovorka, Petr Kubica, Kamila BoháčkováInterviewKarel Vachek: Films Just Have to Make You Laugh!One of the most original Czech filmmakers Karel Vachek made his ninth film novel called Communism and the Net or the End of Representative Democracy. Fifty years after Prague Spring and thirty years after the Velvet Revolution, Karel Vachek “with his inner laughter” looks back on the evolution of our society and predicts a transformation to direct democracy based on the possibilities of the internet that will allow for the engagement of the whole mankind without the need of representatives. His film Communism will be screened at the beginning of next year at the International Film festival Rotterdam.Kamila BoháčkováIntroductionCzech docs of the year 2019Welcome at the English double issue of dok.revue 2019. This winter issue looks back upon the Czech documentary scene in the year 2019 and serves as an annual book of the most (internationally) interesting Czech documentaries and articles about them at dok.revue.Kamila Boháčkovávideo dok.revueMasterclass: Sergej Dvorcevoj23rd Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival