J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Doc Fortnight ’14: The Private Life of Fenfen

Evidently, fifteen minutes will not get you very far in today’s China. Guo Lifen (familiarly known as Fenfen) gained considerable new media-social network notoriety as the subject of Leslie Tai’s collaborative documentaries, but the reality of her class and circumstances remained unchanged. Her personal travails will become grist for public consumption in Tai’s The Private Life of Fenfen (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Documentary Fortnight at MoMA.

Guo Lifen has a lot of history with Tai. By giving her editorial control over their previous film, Tai hoped to avoid issues of exploitation. The divorced Guo also has considerable history with men that could be considered unambiguously exploitative. After completing their collaboration My Name is Fenfen and her own Sister Heaven Sister Earth, Tai gave a camera to record Guo video diary. Three years later, Guo handed Tai over one hundred hours of tape, declaring her dreams were now “dead.”

It is stark stuff, including accounts of family strife, domestic abuse, and an abortion precipitated by her lowlife fiancé’s drunken attack. Guo recounts it all matter-of-factly, as if she were already dead on the inside. Frankly, her testimony is quite spooky, but Tai’s presentation strategy is somewhat debatable.

Rather than simply edit it together, she films closed circuit broadcasts of Fenfen’s diaries, as if it were a legit reality TV program, in the sort of greasy spoons and hole-in-the-wall shops that cater to migrant workers such as Guo. While it adds an uncomfortably voyeuristic dynamic to the film (particularly when we hear some of the viewers’ unkind commentary), it also provides the constant reminder that this is where Guo came from and this is where she will inevitably return.

Guo is still relatively young. She should be able to make mistakes and get on with her life, but she clearly does not think she has that option. At best, she hopes for a modest measure of peace and quiet.  In its unassuming way, that is a damning indictment of contemporary China. Well worth seeing, The Private Life of Fenfen screens this Monday (2/24) and Thursday (2/27) as part of a double bill with Xu Huijing’s extraordinarily revealing Mothers, during MoMA’s annual Documentary Fortnight.

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