A sweeping documentary achievement (though one suspects it’s one that would be a multi-part television series were it made today), veteran documentarian Joris Ivens and his partner Marceline Loridan spent many years filming in China in the early-1970s to cover the Cultural Revolution. There are 12 parts, several of them feature-length, and several which are short films (for example, “The Football Incident” — which can be found on YouTube — runs at only 20 minutes, and there are a couple of under-half hour pieces about the circus and opera in Beijing), and needless to say I watched it over a period of weeks when I could steal some time.
For all that its aims could be broadly stated as propagandistic in nature — or at least, not exactly out of step with Chinese government policy of the era — it still captures some wonderful material touching on people’s lives being lived in the period. Much of it is filmed along the Eastern coastal stretch of China, from the oilfields in the north-east to a couple of pieces about Shanghai (one touching on the work of a city pharmacy, and another just an impressionistic sense of the city as a whole), to a fishing village somewhere in between those two, as well as the short films about the Peking Opera and Circus. (There are a couple of pendant 1977 short films about ethnic minorities in the north-west, The Uyghurs and The Kazakhs, which are boxed up with the French DVD release.)
Ivens’s camera is often in motion, moving around its subjects, as they talk to each other in meetings, gather at lunchtimes to debate how best they can meet their work targets and improve their engagement with one another, and sometimes speak directly to camera. Largely eschewing subtitles (except in a sung scene from the opera), instead we get a man and a woman’s voice (in English or French depending on the version watched) either commenting on the scene or translating the words heard, presumably intended to reflect the two filmmakers. The colours are rich and the camerawork fluid: what is presented is clearly the best of the Cultural Revolution in action, though it does largely stick to workers (in the oilfield, in shops, in factories, making dolls and, the shortest of the films, a university professor grappling with the new dialectic method).
For me, the two most striking things were firstly the constant engagement with dialectics: in the classroom scene, even the teachers admit their fallibility and try to engage with the students as equals; the professor laughingly admits he has had difficulties; and in the factories there are constant discussions about how to best and most fairly resolve collective work disagreements. Secondly, the role of women is celebrated and given equal time (the final of the films is “One Woman, One Family” which focuses a single woman in her factory work, where she is a leading union organiser, and her family life — though it does take in some of her co-workers arguing that maybe she shouldn’t be at the centre, because many others do equally valuable work). Throughout all the episodes, it is made clear that — in the ideal revolutionary world being shown — women are every bit as effective as their male comrades. There’s an all-woman fishing boat crew, while women take visible and leading roles in the factories’ work (less so the oilfields).
It’s a broad canvas, and not entirely exempt from criticism — would that the revolutionary unity depicted in the film were either sustained or borne out by history — but it’s a beautiful, moving film about the work and lives of ordinary people.
Directors Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan Ivens; Cinematographer Joris Ivens; Length 763 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 25 March 2017.