“Frankly, have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say, as they teach in film schools, ‘Don’t look at the camera’?” asks the narrator of a film by Chris Marker, the French multimedia artist who passed away last week.
People’s Park, which premiered earlier this month at the Locarno International Film Festival, invokes Marker’s ethnographic spirit. This single-shot, 78-minute documentary records a public park in Chengdu, China. Without commentary, the viewer experiences a revelry of color and humanity. The people in the park don’t just look at the camera; they waltz with it, raise two-fingered peace signs in front of it, tug wobbly tots towards it, bellow Chinese opera ballads to it. An old man’s decision whether to wave at the camera as it glides past him gathers dramatic weight. Of course, there is also life unaware that it is being filmed: children with fishing nets folded over a pond, a teenage boy waking from a daydream under a canopy of sycamores. The mainspring of the film’s genius is its ability to so exquisitely observe both spectacle and banality.
In the single long, unbroken shot, there is no Chinese Communist Party to vet, edit, or censor the images or the emotions on the people’s faces. Not only this, we see China outside the context represented by the popular media—its unrivaled economic growth, government lies, fake milk scandals, internet censorship. The film presents intimate vignettes from a huge country and gets many of the universals right. It observes the park as a stage for celebration and collective feeling that spontaneously showcases amateur performers: pre-teen tea-ceremony hosts, retirees singing karaoke, old men brushing calligraphy with water on concrete walkways.
The filmmaking process, in many ways, parallels these amateur performances. “Trying to pull off a feature-length, one-take film in a crowded urban park in China,” said the filmmakers, Libbie Dina Cohn [daughter of AAP senior editor Don Cohn] and John Paul Sniadecki, “is like performing a tightrope act, with so many opportunities for something to go wrong at every turn.” Cohn and Sniadecki shot People’s Park in three weeks in the summer of 2011, completing approximately 21 lengthy takes overall. For an instant, in a shiny, gold strip of an announcement board, we glimpse the two filmmakers’ reflections. Cohn sits in a wheelchair cradling the camera, while Sniadecki pushes her along from behind, grasping a bouquet of microphones.
Their makeshift approach allows for protean movement and serendipitous encounters. A bowered pathway might open up on to a child washing in a teacup fountain or a plaza where park society swirls to the sound of a whining two-string erhu. “We wanted to make the film in the thick of this energy, to create the entire piece in the park rather than in an editing room,” Cohn explained.
The film’s gorgeous progression concludes with a crowd dancing under the sun to a cheesy American pop song. All ages of people coexist here. A woman’s hemispherical waist twists, a toothless man sways his cane to the beat, teenage boys spin around on the ground, and their eyes are all looking at you.
After Locarno, People’s Park was to show at the Beijing Independent Film Festival (the event was closed by authorities during the 18 August opening screening), but will be shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival and Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival).