Published Nov 03, 2012China has long been a focus of politically-charged documentaries that attempt to expose the communist regime and its rampant human rights violations. What we rarely see are films that examine the ordinary aspects of the country and its people as they go about their normal daily lives, affording viewers an observational eye on a unique land of 1.3 billion people. Directors Libbie Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki's People's Park avoids all things controversial with their documentary opting instead to capture the vibrancy of the titular Chenghdu Park.
As China's population continues to grow and construction projects gobble up urban space, public parks and green spaces have become increasingly important to its citizens. The parks offer an escape from all things concrete and metropolitan, acting as a place of respite and a location for varied activities.
People's Park is a 78 minute single shot film that finds the camera slowly weaving through the bustling park, seemingly interacting with passersby as they go about their doings. The camera strolls through crowds as they dance, sing, drink tea and play Mahjong, literally exploring and experiencing the energy of the park visitors in the first-person.
While the film offers a rare glimpse of a faraway place that most North American residents will never see with their own eyes, there's something unsettling in how it was shot. Cohn sat in a wheelchair holding the camera while Sniadecki pushed her around the park, which obviously would have been an oddity for the park visitors to witness. There are several close-up shots of people that have a sense of intrusion to them, ranging from an elderly woman picking her pants out of her butt crack to numerous pairs of people that are quite obviously having private conversations. Many of the subjects openly wave and give a peace sign, while a dance party of sorts featuring Roger Meno's "I Find The Way" finds participants openly interacting with the camera.
The cinematography leaves a lot to be desired, as the camera work is understandably shaky and some of the panning induces a feeling of inertia. Looking past some of the technical issues, People's Park is a curious documentary that has something to offer to armchair ethnographers.
People's Park screens on Friday, November 9th at 7:00pm at AGO Jackman Hall. (Harvard Film Study Centre)