Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
DOC NYC ’15: On the Rim of the Sky
now, Westerners know to be wary whenever do-gooder activists show up offering
their services out of the goodness of their hearts. A provincial Chinese
primary school teacher learns that lesson the hard way in one of the most
isolated schools in the world. Xu Hongjie documented every agonizing step of
the resulting clash of values and personalities in On the Rim of the Sky (trailer here), which screens during
this year’s DOC NYC.
know what they say about the Road to Hell? Well, in this case, it is debatable
just how good the Che Guevara-idolizing Bao Tangtao’s intentions really are.
Regardless, it is safe to say he enjoys getting praised for his supposed altruism.
In contrast, “Teacher Shen” Qijun has been content to quietly plug away as the
only teacher students of Gulu village have known for the last twenty-five
years. However, because Shen only has a middle school diploma, the educational
bureaucracy classifies him as a substitute teacher. As a result, he has earned
a pittance compared to so-called full time teachers.
Gulu is literally built into the side of a treacherous cliff face, Shen has
been the only teacher willing to stay in the mountain village. Initially, he
welcomed the help offered by Bao and his colleagues from an Americorps style
non-profit, but it was clear the “volunteers” were more interested in taking
bows than actually teaching, right from the start. Unfortunately, Shen also
flashes his temper a little too freely, resulting in a bitter and prolonged
conflict between the two. Frustratingly, most of the village apparently sides
with Bao and his cronies, because they can bring the development funds. Despite
the official complaints they convince the villagers to file, Shen has one trump
card in their power struggle—he controls the school’s bank account.
Rim is one of the most
draining, disillusioning films you will see all year. Xu resists playing
favorites between Shen and Bao, but she simply catches the latter in too many
unflattering moments to maintain an air of neutrality. Plus, the bitterly
ironic implications of the closing scene are impossible to miss.
drama Xu records is massively real and the stakes are hugely significant. Yet,
just the act of filming in Gulu represented a serious challenge. It is about as
accessible as Shangri-La, but that vivid sense of place further distinguishes Rim from equally disenchanting but
dingier looking independent Chinese documentaries.
plays like a collaboration between Jia Zhangke
and Arthur Miller, but it is all real life happening. It is a real feat of
nonfiction filmmaking that will make you gasp in several different ways. Xu’s
multi-year investment pays off in spades with a film that will ultimately turn
your stomach to ice. Very highly recommended, On the Rim of the World screens this Sunday morning (11/15) at the
IFC Center, as part of DOC NYC ’15.
Labels: DOC NYC '15, Documentary