(2015, Zhang Zanbo)
[Hot Docs Oz Documentary Film Festival 2016]
[4 out of 5 stars]
There have been a handful of documentaries revealing the growing pains of China’s progression over the decade. Stories of displacement are told in Yun Chang’s cinematic UP THE YANGTZE about the building of a dam in the Yangtze river. In Lixin Fan’s affecting doc LAST TRAIN HOME we see the world’s largest human migration of workers coming home to their families for New Year. Most recently, THE CHINESE MAYOR by Zhou Hao chronicles the struggles of a figure in power who is revealed to be as helpless as the people and the city he governs.
Zhang Zanbo’s THE ROAD is an accumulation of what these previous documentaries have touched on. Divided in segments that focus on particular groups of people, we see conflict between locals and labourers and then between labourers and the company and then between the companies and government officials.
This trickle-up approach is effective and intelligent because we see the end of the stick first: the elderly woman whose house is damaged from rocks flung from the explosions made by the labourers. She has no power and any compensation she is promised seems to slip away like fish from the river. By the end, we see the final pass of responsibility, the red envelope full of bribery money handed over from the construction company to government officials. A cycle of social destruction for the sake of economic building.
When things go wrong like houses being damaged or, more seriously, deaths and injuries of workers - blame and guilt are passed around from one group of people to the next. Responsibility is handed over like a lit dynamite. But the brutal truth is this: the only ones we never see it passed on to is the State. Their presence hovers over these people’s lives but they mights as well be mythical figures. Their existence is only felt from the propaganda played on television or the words coming out of a Party official’s mouth. “You know that sickle and hammer on the flag? It should be replaced with a bank note”, a worker says as they watch the celebrations of the Communist Party’s birthday.
There are plenty of depressingly ironic images here that Zanbo and his team capture. A group of workers destroying a temple and moving a large statue of Buddha to a makeshift tent. “I hope this doesn’t bring bad luck”, one of them says, genuinely concerned. There is also a scene showing a family sitting underneath a truck owned by the construction company. They are refusing to leave until they get their compensation from the damages and injuries the company has caused to them.
China, as we know, is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and they have no intentions of stopping. Documentaries like THE ROAD are heartbreaking records of the toll this has had on the Chinese people - from those at the bottom, to the ones on top.