Between fiction and essay with Xiaolu Guo

14 mins read
Photo by Bobby Zip.

The frame of a screen hangs on a wall before several rows of chairs in Swarthmore’s hallowed/multipurpose Eugene Lang Performing Arts Center. Several students and professors are sprinkled about, waiting for the film to begin in an abstract pattern with no reason to it. A student in charge, probably being paid to insert the DVD and press play, announces the title Once Upon a Time a Proletarian, in a surprisingly brief service announcement before turning off all the lights.

The air, like before a storm, is filled with electricity in more way than one as the projector projects an image of colossal electric wires and their steely frames, like the tennis rackets of a god, in a panoramic shot of what one assumes could be any developed country in the world. The air, the more you look into the frame, is smoggy. The corn is not as golden as a romantic film with any taste for positive symmetry might have filmed it to be. This is not to say there isn’t a symmetry visible to the asymmetrical audience filling the auditorium; only that it’s different from what one’s used to.

The camera-work is unsteady, shaking slightly, not unlike the perspective of the panorama and the eyes of the audience, flickering in unison over the expanse of the screen, searching for signs, absorbing frame after frame. A figure interrupts the static immensity of the power lines with, if nothing else, an admirable human tenacity for leaf-gathering. The colors are subdued, but the tension, between the unmoving, powerful electric lines and the aged wrinkles of the human hands searching for loose leaves in the field where not a single ear of corn can be found, is more colorful in gradients of contrast and irony than any color ever could be. This is the essence of Xiaolu Guo, screenwriter, documentarian, director, novelist, human being. The title of Once Upon a Time a Proletarian shines brightly and ironically.

“I’m tired,” a worker in a 4-star Beijing hotel says later in the film through the power lines which energize Guo’s spectrum. “Nothing is meaningful. The more you talk the less you understand.” Not very many screenwriters can make echoes of Confucius echo from the mouth of a proletarian.

Images shift fluidly in the documentary from the very much alive, enormous and growing landfills to the skeletons of high-rises fueling their supply.

“We should be proud,” the owner of hotel chain tells Gu’s microphone, as Gu’s camera scrolls across the landfill, “of Deng Xiao Peng for opening up China to the West.”

China’s darkness lingers on the faces of the children which show up between every chapter of Proleterian. They smile as they read her a new joke in between each additional character of Proleterian which together in series comprise her documentary.

“We were desperate,” said Guo to a bigger, more symmetrical audience two nights after the showing of Proleterian in the same multi-purpose cinema.

Born in a small village, Guo became “really fed up with life in the village,” so fed up that she spent the next twelve years of her life in Film School. Four for a bachelors, three for a Masters, two teaching, and two additional years studying in the United Kingdom.

“In all that time,” she continued, “I never made one film.” She was, that whole time, “in love with literature.”

“I was immersed in theory.”

“My filmmaking was never really of a narrative style. Novels are my narrative.”

The screen looms, still empty, above the screenwriter as she looks not much into the eyes of the audience as through them and into the institutions she became a part of, perhaps hesitantly, over the course of a successful career.

“In the West,” continued Guo, “it is a battle.” Guo shows no physical emotional change as she states this fact. She herself is a warrior. “It is a battle to convince publishers and readers.”

“Mine is an essay-style in the way I make film.” The articulate and timely manner of her thought is spoken in what could be called an almost stream-of-conscious style if it wasn’t for the powerful organization and travelled nature of them all brought comprehensively to bear on her audience, reminding one of Montaigne.

“I use a film language,” said Guo, “rather than a traditional narrative.” The meaning of this nuanced reflection on the method and language which provide the home in which her art can live and prosper can perhaps be found in a scene of The Concrete Revolution that she showed then, perhaps ironically, found herself compelled to narrate.

As the image of a map fades out, the physical reality of a panorama replaces the fluid motion and art of cartography with the sharp lines and infrastructure of a high-rise reality. Immediately the image of an horizon, filled to the brim with built environment, shifts to that of an excavator caught in the act of demolishing a small home.

“His home,” says a narrator, “is gone.”

The house fades into a cloud of dust within the frame of the oppressive construction site and film. Something Kafka-esque taints the memory to which viewers have no claim, something simply out of their control, like globalization.

I could not put enough emphasis on the credit Guo gives to pure circumstance and chance in her art.

With regards to The Concrete Revolution:

“The Chinese construction workers,” explained Guo to the audience,  “were forced to build much faster because they were late. They were desperately trying to build for the Olympics.”

“When the manager saw the camera there the local police would come and chase you away. They would say things like: ‘you are a distraction from the National Construction, the Great Dream.’  We were just being chased around, so the visual is quite wobbly.”

“I remember that it was so wobbly that we basically just had to use slow motion. The soundtrack was so poorly recorded, you know, when — because, often, I film just by myself. Sometimes I have a camera person. But most of the time I am by myself. Me with a little camera, so i can talk with anyone I want. When you have a big crew doing the documentary, I think this is the greatest disadvantage you will face. And I’m sure some of you’re already making your little documentary films, or with your iPhone. You will find using a little iPhone’s much more advanced, much more easier than using a proper, big camera. Although the visual quality might be better with a big camera, but the intimacy you gain, the trust, from a little iPhone, is much, much better.”

“So I’m that filmmaker that really detests the quality of film first. For me that’s a technical quality. It’s not emotional quality.

“And of course a film must become very critical, is my attitude, you know, against the so-called ‘National Dreams,’ which are themselves against the individual’s life in China. “

“I remember I was interviewing twenty or thirty construction workers, and that was a week before the Chinese New Year, and some Chinese construction workers cried when I asked one question. They cried, because they were on the site for years. They were sleeping in this kind of little camp, you know, which is built for the workers, to sleep. Very bleak, totally bleak. The question I always ask is: where is your wife, where is your child? One man really broke down on camera. Really in tears. And I did not prepare. You know. I did not understand. I asked him: ‘Oh, why did you cry? Is it sand?’ Because there was a sand storm. I couldn’t believe he could be suddenly so crying, like a little child. Because this question: Where is your wife, where is your child? And he said: ‘I haven’t seen my wife and child for years.’ Because the construction site doesn’t pay him. And in order to get paid, he has to work more, to wait until the end of the year. And he had just broken down on the camera. That’s the ending of this film. It supported my attitude as a filmmaker. And I think, you know, perhaps I’m more political than some filmmakers, especially the fiction filmmakers. They hide behind this camera. Their political attitude is very hidden. So all my novels and my films have been very clear: where I stand. So I don’t do this very very subtle, invisible language of the political language — that, you see. That’s the very beginning of my film career.

“I took an English Director of Photographer. We studied together in the UK. She’s English, she doesn’t speak Chinese. Sometimes it would just be me in the site. You know; and I think that’s the way it has to be, especially when you are naked — and by naked I mean when you are naked from the production schedule, from the producer’s schedule. You have to be alone, conduct the schedule, the interview, totally forward, and totally improvising. And because of the lack of the audio, and the soundtrack was so poorly recorded, I used lots of my own voice-over; and one thing is important, I think. The voice-over should not be narrative. The voice-over should be totally subjective. So you treat your audience not as passive story-listener, but you treat your audience as a sort of poetic communicator, who understands, you know, the resonance, of the film, rather than the mere facts of the film.”

I asked Guo how she morally justified aesthetically utilizing pain, suffering, and sadness, and representing it on film.

“If you cannot conquer,” Guo began, “the moral issue, or the hesitation in representing someone like a lover or wife, then you will not create art.

“You must go above moral judgment.”

“I chase after style and texture, color, emotion.”

“Only without being self-censoring can you produce something alive, vivid, grand.”

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