As we venture further into the 21st century, it will perhaps become increasingly obvious how models to explain the world and legitimize a nation’s actions can be replaced by dreams. The most obvious example is the concept of the American Dream, invoked in countless speeches, adverts and propaganda pieces involving the complete spectrum of the US political agenda. In many ways Xi Jinping’s idea of a Chinese Dream aims to address similar ideals, especially when he states people should “dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfill the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation”. In their short documentary “China Dream” filmmakers Thomas Licata and Hugo Brilmaker aim to take a look at how far China has come to fulfill its ambitions, shed light on its paradoxes and its undeniable expansion, as they claim in their statement about the film.
“China Dream” is screening at Vesoul International Festival of Asian Cinema 2020
More precisely, the film takes place in the city of Datong, which has already been the subject of Zhou Yao’s documentary “The Chinese Mayor”. Geng Yanbo, mayor between 2008 and 2013, encouraged the planning and eventual re-construction of the ancient defensive wall from the era of the Ming dynasty which was a symbol of protection from the Mongol threat. The construction saw the demolition of 200,000 homes and the re-location of countless families to newly-built apartment buildings. However, as the opening minutes of “China Dream” have passed, you realize this vision has clearly been surpassed by a more ambitious plan which no longer only involves the defensive wall.
Even though Licata and Brilmaker include interviews with people who have been re-located, still fight the procedure or who are left in the ruined streets, their lives surrounded by demolished homes, “China Dream” is, at its core, more concerned with the meaning of its images. In a way the images of the now-reestablished defensive wall should be considered through the framework of concepts such as Beaudrillard’s idea of simulacra and simulation. Devoid of their historical meaning, the reconstructed historical sights have been given a new meaning which is enforced by the authorities. However, the repeated images of the run-down spaces, the unused, barren grounds surrounding these buildings question these meanings, direct the question to the viewer to come up with a meaning and essentially provoke analytical thought.
In any case, the images of their film hint at a certain paradox within China, its people, their lives and their relationship to politics. The imitation of the old has resulted in the destruction of many old houses, many over 70 years old and integral to the socio-cultural identity of a place such as Datong. While the wall may certainly look astonishing to the eye at first, there is no denying the kind of “theme park”-quality of its existence, a notion emphasized by images of guided tours, for example. Essentially, true history has been replaced by simulated history, something which has become arbitrary and in the end empty since its meaning has become irrelevant.
In the end, “China Dream” proves to be an insightful, contemplative and deeply provoking excursion into China’s ambition, politics and the great chasm between its people and its institutions. While never taking a distinct stance towards an opinion or view, Thomas Licata and Hugo Brilmaker hint at the troubling development of simulating history to evoke feelings, manufacturing consensus and erasing culture.