Politically Incorrect Souls
In the Films of Hu Jie, China's Survivors Speak
Today we know the bitter aftermath of the “Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom” campaign—450,000 people were labeled “rightists” and exiled, imprisoned or executed—but we, too, might treat the doctrinaire moments cursorily, since they are, after all, the least surprising in retrospect. One line, however, snaps awake even the most desensitized student of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Halfway through the essay, Mao says, “Not having a correct political orientation is like not having a soul.” One wishes it were 1957 and one could rush to the nearest hutong of idealistic young intellectuals to say, “Don’t be fooled! Keep quiet!”
The desire to spare people what you know is coming is felt particularly acutely when one views the documentaries of Chinese filmmaker Hu Jie. Hu Jie has made over thirty documentaries since 1995, many of which expose the merciless campaigns against intellectuals launched by the CCP during its first thirty years of power. Films like Spark and East Wind Farm interview “rightists,” people now in their seventies and eighties who were imprisoned for 18, 20, 22 years for saying the wrong thing—sometimes something so mild one is astounded, sometimes something so pointed one is not surprised. (Gu Yan wrote, for example, in Spark, the journal after which Hu Jie titles his film, “Why is the communist party so corrupt after less than ten years’ rule?”) A photograph of their young selves appears at the top of the screen as they talk—bright-eyed innocence above its dimmed and wrinkled counterparts as we hear about the harrowing decades that transformed the former into the latter.
sak Dinesen said that all sufferings can be borne if you put them in a story. Hu Jie finds individuals who lived through situations that seem to defy representation and creates an atmosphere in which they can tell their stories—in some cases, for the first time. As his interviewees grow more expansive with the soft-spoken Hu, the audience watches them shed years of trauma. In startlingly intimate sequences, individuals reconcile themselves to the wronged lives they’ve lived, performing the excruciating but powerful psychological work of turning wounds and scars into cautionary tales and object lessons.
Hu Jie embarked on what is in China the lonely career of documentary filmmaking when he heard by chance about a 1968 execution. Hu was working for the Xinhua News Agency in Nanjing at the time. He began to research the condemned woman’s life and make the film that would become Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul. Originally an ardent communist, Lin Zhao grew disillusioned with the regime when it launched the anti-rightist movement denouncing those intellectuals naïve enough to interpret in good faith the call to “let one hundred flowers bloom.” As she watched her peers criticized, beaten, imprisoned, exiled, and killed for asking reasonable questions and making intelligent points, she realized that the Party was creating a culture of terror, one in which a person would not be permitted to think or speak freely. Her attempts to defend free thinking naturally meant that she fell victim herself to the campaign. In prison, she refused to “reform,” despite escalating torture tactics—because to reform, she would have had to contradict what she knew to be true. In 1968, she was shot. An official was dispatched to recoup the cost of the bullet from her mother.
Xinhua News Agency, an organization under the supervision of the Chinese Communist Party, explained to Hu Jie that if he intended to continue to make these kinds of films, he would have to quit or be fired. He quit. He and his wife Jiang Fenfen agreed that if he raised his own money to produce the films, she would support the family on her income. They would lead smaller lives in one respect, in order to lead bigger lives in another.
Lin Zhao’s steadfastness in the face of extreme pressure attracted Hu Jie to her story, but so did the simple fact of her ability to think clearly when so many others couldn’t. “This girl continued to think for herself when the rest of China stopped thinking,” he says at the beginning of Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul. How does one retain one’s critical capacity when under enormous psychological and physical pressure to conform to ideology? How does one hold onto right and wrong when one can no longer freely test one’s impressions among others? Whereas Hannah Arendt explained how easy it is to stop thinking in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hu Jie shows how hard it can be to continue to think in films like Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, My Mother Wang Peiying, East Wind Farm, Though I am Gone, and Spark.
u is the Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line, Fog of War) or Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) of China. He works within budgets and under political constraints, however, that would be their worst nightmares. In one scene in Spark, Hu begins to interview a gentleman in the man’s apartment when the phone rings. It’s the Security Bureau, warning the man not to answer Hu’s questions. Hu hurriedly packs up and leaves. Often, people he has spent countless hours building a relationship with will agree to be interviewed, only to get scared and back out. Other people welcome the chance to finally discuss the years of their political persecution, but their children intervene and dissuade them from doing so. These children, adults now, worry that even after the passage of three or four decades, there will be repercussions for their families if their parents revisit the past.
People who do unspool their memories for Hu Jie’s camera are often transformed. In Red Art, a film about Cultural Revolution propaganda, one former member of the Red Guard recounts violent episodes, including one teacher’s numerous suicide attempts as he’s repeatedly denounced and beaten over a period of weeks. The man insists that the children who participated in the violence—as he did—must atone for what they did, or the havoc will arise again, in one form or another, down through the generations. Reading a note of apology to the teacher, the man’s face flushes deep red. He can’t read the letter and simultaneously fight back the grief overtaking his body, so he stops reading and cries. There is a profound sense of release and relief—for the audience and, one hopes, for the man as well.
A scene in Spark features a peasant whose lack of knowledge about his family’s past produces emotionally devastating cinema. The man’s father, also a peasant, had indicated some sympathy for a group of students decrying the suffering and mass starvation during the Great Famine from 1958 to 1960. He was declared a counterrevolutionary and executed at a stadium rally. As Hu interviews this peasant’s now-aged son, it becomes increasingly clear that the man knows very little, if anything, of his father’s courage. All he seems to know is that his father was a bad element who was executed by the government. He doesn’t seem to have asked many questions about what happened to his father, and being asked questions now by Hu Jie is clearly a disconcerting experience. As they talk, the camera pans to a portrait of Mao hanging in the man’s apartment. It’s surely been there for decades. One feels time has stood tragically still in China’s countryside, even as its cities have busted pell-mell into the twenty-first century.
A few of Hu Jie’s films have been shown at international film festivals, but the CCP does not allow him to screen his documentaries in mainland China. The same one-party state that doled out the brutalities documented in these films continues to reign, after all. Nothing structural has substantively changed to the way the government operates. Who knows if the Party is right to worry that public screenings of Hu Jie’s films might threaten their grip on power, but therein yet another injustice is perpetrated. Those brave souls willing to talk are deprived of even the small comfort of knowing that the world in which they suffered, and in which they soon will die, has heard their stories.
Hu Jie was recently profiled by PRI’s Matthew Bell for The World. Two Hu Jie films—Though I am Gone and Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul—can be found at www.fandor.com.
Jennifer Ruth recently reviewed Zizek’s Demanding the Impossible. She is speaking about Hu Jie’s films on February 28th at 6:30 pm at Portland State University, in the School of Business Administration, room 490.