Petition: A Film by Zhao Liang 2010
Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Silvie Blum
Directed by Zhao Liang
DVD, color, 88 min.
Date Entered: 03/24/2011Reviewed by Sheila Intner, Professor Emerita, Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College GSLIS at Mt. Holyoke, South Hadley, MA
In this reviewer’s opinion, Petition is the video equivalent of raw data. While raw data is extremely valuable and needs to be studied, it is rare that it can be utilized by non-experts without added interpretation and mediation. The only mediation in this film is translation of most of the Chinese-language conversation into English. Otherwise, viewers see scene after scene of petitioners going about their difficult daily lives, attempting to register their complaints, and being rejected and rebuked by the authorities. The two hours plus of raw data portrayed in this video is simply too much to be digested effectively by audiences of students except, perhaps, at the post-baccalaureate level.
Yet, filmmaker Liang clearly has an agenda in the film—showing the callousness and indifference of the Chinese authorities in Beijing to the injustices the petitioners believe they have suffered at the hands of local officials. The petitioners’ treatment is contrasted with the stoicism with which they take the blows to their cases dished out by the Beijing government and the persistence they demonstrate in continuing to pursue different outcomes—sometimes for years, without success. American viewers may well wonder why the petitioners don’t realize they are fighting a losing battle and give up, go home, and try to move past their false hopes of obtaining relief.
The lack of context provided in the video is discouraging. This reviewer could not help but wonder how many, if any, petitioners are successful in registering complaints versus how many are rejected. Are any of the petitions submitted by the Chinese citizens reviewed objectively? Are all petitions denied? Do the pitiful subjects of the video represent a majority of petitioners or solely the people who refuse to take “no” for an answer? Viewers are left to wonder.
Perhaps for Chinese audiences, Petition’s lack of context is not important, because cultural knowledge can fill in the blanks. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, American viewers won’t be able to do more than grasp filmmaker Zhou’s main point: that the Beijing authorities react with meanness and cruelty to complainants ostensibly seeking justice and mercy. After decades of political and economic conflict between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China, it isn’t surprising that American viewers would likely sympathize with the petitioners. The problem is, we can’t be certain what we are seeing is the norm. We don’t know that the footage, while vivid and real, is not slanted to make us believe there is no other reason for the treatment being given the petitioners, such as the possibility that at some point their cases were fairly reviewed and they were found to be in the wrong. As a result, no matter how terrible the scenes in the video are, they fail to prove anything.