China has, in the past few years, become a true breeding ground for modern documentary cinema, its sheer size, sociopolitical struggles and contradictions a measure of the treasure trove of stories and views directors have found there. Though most of the great documentaries that have come out of China recently have mostly been home-bred, even if with help from foreign financing, People's Park is something else: it's a production from Harvard's experimental film laboratory ran by Lucien Castaing-Taylor, and a much less politically activist work, more concerned with recording the mood and behaviours of a peaceful Summer Sunday in a Chinese park, in a quasi-ethnographic take.

     Yet People's Park ends up sending that ethnography to the back seat by virtue of its formal construction: a 75-minute single take roaming through the park at child's eye-view, taking in everything that's happening around the camera. And that's the problem: halfway through you realise the approach has taken over the project, since everywhere they go many people can't help but stare at the camera, its  sheer unusual presence unable to render it invisible and suggesting a reverse voyeurism that simultaneously underlines and undermines the technical prowess.

     Unlike Aleksander Sokurov's Russian Ark, where a narrative thread helped the camera move along, there is a sense of amiable, contemplative rambling here, letting the park speak for itself, as it were. But the aimless wandering only really focuses in occasional scenes where the camera manages to mingle unattended with the crowd, resulting in an intriguing but ultimately flawed exercise.

Directors, cameramen, editors: Libbie Dina Cohn, John Paul Sniadecki
Production: Harvard Film Study Center, Sensory Ethnography Lab, Cohn & Sniadecki Productions
USA, 2012, 77 minutes

Screened: DocLisboa 2012 official competition advance screener, Lisbon, October 13th 2012


Popular Posts