J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

DOC NYC ’15: Dreaming Against the World (short)

What were the crimes artist and poet Mu Xin was arrested for during his lifetime? Hardcore offenses, like talking informally about Madame Mao at a social gathering and making sketches in what became known as Taiwan in the years before the revolution (that’s right, he did not have the gift of clairvoyance). Of course, the Red Guards hardly needed a pretext to arrest and torture anyone during the Cultural Revolution. His secret, nonpolitical art was more than sufficient. Filmmakers Francesco Bello & Timothy Sternberg coaxed the late artist into reflecting on his life and work in the elegantly elegiac short documentary Dreaming Against the World (trailer here), a Motion Picture Institute (MPI) supported film that screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Mu Xin was born into a well to do family in Wuzhen, so he was doomed to face hardships during Mao’s various ideological campaigns. However, his early years were also greatly enriched by the extensive library a local intellectual left in his family’s care. Frankly, Mu Xin was better read in classic Western literature than any of us, which would hardly help his case during the Cultural Revolution, but it gave him perspective.

Although Mu Xin was a reluctant interview subject, he radiates dignity and erudite charm. Obviously, the episodes he warily speaks of were difficult to revisit, but he also seems to experience some cathartic release from the process. Yet, he is extraordinarily Zen-like referring to the scores of paintings, poems, plays, and other writings confiscated and destroyed during the collective insanity as mere “practice.”

For those who doubt the Communist experience immeasurably impoverished the world, Mu Xin’s lost work is conclusive proof. He is now best known for “Tower Within a Tower” series of landscape paintings and his secretly recorded Prison Notes, sixty six pages of such minute lettering, they are recognized as a work of art in their own right, as well as a courageous act of defiance. Still, one has to wonder what treasures would also be celebrated had they survived.

As Bello & Sternberg rightly point out, Mu Xin could have been summarily executed had his signature works been discovered while he was creating them. It is an incredible story, told with tremendous sensitivity. The filmmakers add just enough context to ensure any viewer can appreciate Mu Xin’s life and work, without getting sidetracked by the nightmarish historical dynamics at play. Several of the credited translators are also names we recognize and therefore give us even further confidence in the film’s accuracy and integrity. It is a film worthy of its accomplished and insightful subject. Very highly recommended, the thirty-five minute Dreaming Against the World screens before Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah this Thursday (11/19) at the SVA Theatre, as part of DOC NYC 2015.

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