08 February 2009

Up the Yangtze

This documentary was kind of a big deal when it came out. Maybe just because China is getting to be a hot topic, and people especially seem to enjoy seeing the "real" China, and how awful it apparently is there. It's a kind of lingering trace of the Cold War, this persistent American belief that people who live under Communist rule never smile, and spend their days wailing and gnashing their teeth and wishing for freedom. And if they are happy, it's a kind of wan, deluded pleasure in shiny objects. I don't know if it's fair to say that this movie fosters such views, but I dunno, watching it, that was the impression I got. Maybe it's because I was watching it on my laptop at the airport while waiting for my very delayed flight, and I was in a crabby mood already, but I really didn't like this movie.

It's an interesting problem, how to make a documentary that brings the viewer close to the subjects without triggering their sense of decency and privacy. How do you expose someone to the private lives of others without making it seem as those you're intruding in those lives? I don't know, but neither do the makers of this film. The main thing that I hated about it was how uncaring and exploitative it felt. Firstly, in filming painful moments, secondly, in privileging them above all others, creating an extremely skewed account, and one that milked every drop of suffering out of its subjects.

The Three Gorges Dam project is a really fascinating topic, and documenting the lives of the people affected by it is an important project, but this movie just doesn't do it well.

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