The Observer (Italy, 2019)

The Beijing Independent Film Festival has been in trouble for some years, and recently downright banned with their office materials, DVDs and computers confiscated, and the festival staff questioned by the police numerous times. Rita Andreetti’s documentary The Observer starts with Li Xianting, the founder of BIFF, saying that all this trouble started in 2014 when they planned to screen Hu Jie’s film Spark.

Who, then, is Hu Jie? That is the topic which inspired Andreetti to follow the life of the filmmaker, as told by himself and through his life work (and a little bit by his wife and mother). Hu Jie turns out to be a very calm and likable man, a filmmaker/artist committed to searching, observing and uncovering the truth behind surfaces. Andreetti’s film is a good companion piece to any showing of Hu Jie’ films, a film showing us the man behind his films.

Hu Jie is known both as a visual artist, and a documentary filmmaker. His story starts at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when Hu Jie was attending the first grade in school. Later, both he and his father served as soldiers in the Chinese Liberation Army, where Hu Jie got a chance to attend the Liberation Army’s Art Academy and learn the skills of artmaking. Later, after the Cultural Revolution fever had died down, and China was well on its way into market economy, controlled by the Party, Hu Jie was in Yuan Ming Artist Village, where he got into his hands a Japanese video camera. “At that time there was no real concept of documentary cinema in China”, says Hu Jie. The new tool lead Hu Jie to become the maker of observational documentaries. He recorded life of the miners in Remote Mountain (1995) and followed a matchmaker in The Female Matchmaker (1995).

The suffering of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution intrigued him and he started conducting investigative historical documentation. Hu Jie had earlier investigated the fate of a woman named Lin Zhao in Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (2004), who ended up prisoned and silenced with special headwear in 1968. In Though I Am Gone (2007), a black and white documentary, Hu Jie recorded the life of a man, whose wife was beaten to death in 1966, labelled as a rightist. The woman’s husband felt that it was his obligation to record the body of his wife by photos, which became the subject of Hu Jie’s film. Though I Am Gone caused trouble for another film festival, Yunfan (Yunnan New Media Festival).

Hu Jie’s filmmaking practice happens very much on the margins. He is not a member of China’s Film Academy, and hence not part of the official filmmaking sector. His subject matter would be censored, were he to try to get any official distribution. “The communist party is afraid of reality”, he states at the beginning of the film. Instead, he self-distributes his films on DVD and at film events (as long as they exist), while some of them have received DVD releases in Hong Kong.

Andreetti’s documentary also follows Hu Jie preparing woodcut graphic art for an art exhibition titled “Let There Be Light”. The topic is the great famine caused by the Great Leap Forward during the 1958-60 collectivization and forced production of steel on the expanse of farming. Spark (2014) is in fact about the same topic: it tells the story of a group of people who published a magazine in 1960 revealing the truth about The Great Leap Forward.

Andreetti’s approach has been to combine extreme close-ups of the people interviewed with interviews, clips from Hu Jie’s films, and to interweave these elements with her own observations on the everyday life in a park, where contemporary Chinese practice Tai Ji, and other recreational activities in a leisurely way – a stark contrast to the observational method of Hu Jie’s films.

The Observer is available as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.