“If you discover the truth, if you reveal the truth,
then you will suffer.”
One of the pillars of exercising thought control has always been to control a nation’s culture. Given the potential threat of free expression, destroying its foundation or effectively beguiling its representatives are two consequences we have seen in the past, and sadly still witness in the present. From the concept of the Aryan race finding its way into the works of Leni Riefenstahl to the arrests of artists like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei in China, controlling a culture’s output is a reliable symptom of a repressive system erasing any form of dissent.
Certainly, one of those events was the shutdown of the Beijing Independent Festival in 2014. Because the festival founded by art critic Lia Xianting planned on screening Hu Jie’s documentary “Spark” (which was supposed to be shown in an unfinished cut) , even before the opening ceremonies authorities had seized computers and other items from the offices of the festival as well as arrested its founder and artistic director. The documentary about a group of people who published a magazine in 1960 exposing the true face of the great famine in their province as well as the crimes legitimized (or ignored) by the government was obviously too much truth to handle for the present political system in China. However, it is not the first time director Hu Jie has experienced Chinese authorities spare no expense when it comes to silencing voices such as the ones featured in his documentaries.
In her documentary “The Observer” film critic and blogger Rita Andreetti aims to portray the director behind “Spark” and many other features. Starting with the aforementioned shutdown of the Beijing Independent Film Festival in 2014, the film follows the career of Hu Jie from his time in the army to his first documentaries. Besides giving an insight into his motivations as an artist, she also talks to his family and people who have been featured in his documentaries such as “Though I Am Gone”, “The Matchmaker” and “Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul”.
Ultimately, for those few lucky ones who managed to watch one of his documentaries, Andreetti’s film offers a very interesting insight into Hu Jie’s work. Most importantly, she depicts a man who takes his time to answer, who is confident about the statement expressed in his works and who is (and always has been) interested in the people around him. Similar to the tone of films like “Spark”, Hu Jie is presented as a thoughtful, creative artist defined by honesty and candor, principles he learned from his parents as well as his time in the army.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect is when Hu Jie talks about the status of the artist within Chinese society. Considering he has been blacklisted himself and many of his films have led to film festivals being shut down, you would expect a certain layer of frustration in his voice, especially since releasing his films globally has also been quite difficult. However, Hu Jie remains undeterred, even with the financial and emotional hardships, since he realizes the necessity of history to be uncovered unbound by the version Chinese authorities would like to hear. As both his wife and his mother confirm, despite these struggles, there is a need for these stories to be told, for these images to be shown because of the truth they show.
In the end, “The Observer” is the portrayal of a committed, likable and confident artist whose voice should be given a wider audience. Apart from these aspects, it presents the philosophy of Hu Jie – the search for the truth – as a much needed danger to the lies and cover-ups by a repressive regime which has forgotten about the people it allegedly serves.