J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Turn It On: Prisoners in Freedom City (short)

Did you have a bad commute today? Maybe you woke up late, traffic was bad, or your train was stuck in a tunnel. Zeng Jinyan’s morning was worse. Every day since her husband, Sakharov Freedom of Thought Prize-winner Hu Jia was placed under house arrest, she has had to run a gauntlet of hostile State Security Police just to go to work. Sometimes they block her from leaving, while others days they just cruelly mock her, but Hu captured it all from his flat window and together they assembled the damning footage into the short documentary Prisoners in Freedom City, which screens during the Ai Weiwei-curated Turn It On: China on Film series now underway at the Guggenheim.

Arguably, house-arrest represented a slight improvement for Hu, after he was held incommunicado for forty-one days, much like Teacher Ai. Technically, Zeng was free to come and go, but she was not free of harassment. The veritable siege was not particularly fun for Hu’s neighbors in the “BOBO Freedom City” complex either, because the SSP officers left their take-out and rubbish strewn throughout the grounds. Yet, they could hardly blame Hu for that, because he would have been happy to go elsewhere.

Prisoners is not just a film—it is evidence. While filming Beijing’s tax dollars at work, Hu regularly identifies officers by name who were previously present during his illegal incarceration and records all the license plate numbers of SSP vehicles. Yet, it is also an inspiring example of film as genuine “resistance.”

Technically, the thirty-six-minute Prisoners predates Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film by roughly four years, but the Iranian auteur’s document of his house-arrest is more of a personal statement and feature length. Of course, it is not like either filmmaker set out to claim the house-arrest documentary as their signature concept. They just responded to the condition imposed on them by unjust regimes.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the aggressive pettiness of the thuggish SSP intimidation squad than the theft of the “free Chen Guangcheng” magnets from their front door. Chen, often dubbed the “blind, barefoot lawyer” is a friend of the couple, who was then serving a prison term for specious charges.


Given the hand-held, guerrilla nature of its production, Prisoners is often a shaky, no-frills viewing experience, but it is over-flowing with hard truths. Watching the defiant dignity of Zeng and Hu is truly humbling and infuriating (especially considering their situation has gotten worse, not better, since they captured his house-arrest experiences on film). Very highly recommended, Prisoners in Freedom City screens again this Saturday (11/25), as part of Turn It On, at the Guggenheim.

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