Screening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.
The 2006 documentary “Meishi Street”, directed by famed Chinese visual artist Ou Ning, is quite a remarkable film in a number of different ways, chief amongst which is the fact that it was mostly shot on cameras given by the film maker to his subjects. Having screened at a variety of film and art festivals, being chosen for the Official Selection of the Museum of Modern Art Documentary Fortnight and Istanbul Biennial, the film is now set to play the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival in London.
The film’s title refers to a street in Beijing near Tiananmen Square in the old Da Zha Lan district, where in 2004 the Municipal Government launched a scheme to widen the width of the road by 25 metres in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. Since this would result in the demolition of their homes and business and would see them forced to relocate using inadequate compensation money, many residents of the area were understandably up in arms at the plan. The film follows the efforts of several of these people to protect their property and to seek proper process of law, in particular restaurant owner Zhang Jinli, who was given a video camera by Ou Ning to document his struggle as he tries to fight his way through endless bureaucracy.
“Meishi Street” really isn’t quite the film that might be expected from its premise. Although it deals with the potentially very controversial issue of forced evictions and government illegal land reclamation, it’s a film with an oddly cheerful and upbeat feel, centring on Zhang Jinli’s underdog style campaign to save his home rather than getting caught up in assigning blame or trying to unearth corrupt conspiracies. While the film does cover the eviction process without avoiding its harsh unfairness or calling the government’s behaviour into question, by focusing chiefly on its subjects, it attains a warmly human feel and emerges not as a protest piece, but as an almost inspirational story of perseverance in the face of adversity and indifference.
This is in no small part due to the fact that Zhang Jinli himself is a real character, spending a fair amount of the running time singing, practicing martial arts and showing off for the camera, or climbing up onto the roof and hanging up anti-demolition banners. Despite his situation and crusade, he is never seen as being filled with rage or striking out at the authorities – quite the contrary in fact, and there are some great scenes of him having some banter with the police as they film each other. This makes his tireless work all the more rousing and sympathetic, and by eschewing the anger of other similarly themed efforts and taking this more balanced and quietly substantial approach, the film is arguably all the more effective in making its points.
The device of having much of the film shot by Zhang Jinli himself works very well, and by allowing him to record his thoughts and private moments as well as his actions Ou Ning finds a real intimacy and a much more personal depiction of his story. This in turns adds even more passion to the film, pulling the viewer deeply into the situation and allowing for a vivid experience of the hope and pain of the very real people at its heart. Having the film’s subjects behind as well as in front of the camera is a fascinating move itself, both artistically and thematically, and this too helps mark the film as a truly unique undertaking and as a highly creative means of capturing events.
“Meishi Street” is definitely one of the most interesting and engaging documentaries on the issue of forced eviction in modern China, and is an unexpectedly entertaining and inspirational film in its own right. Benefitting from a strong and memorable protagonist in Zhang Jinli, it’s an exceptionally well-made film and one that certainly stays with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
Ou Ning (director