(p. C5) For more than 20 years, the filmmaker Hu Jie has been trawling the deep waters of Chinese history to create a series of harrowing documentaries about the early years of Communist Party rule.
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“Spark” — a film that has undergone many iterations, alternations and expansions — reconstructs the fate of a group of young people who started an underground journal 60 years ago. And “The Observer,” a documentary about Hu by the Italian director Rita Andreetti, is at once a sympathetic portrait of the filmmaker and an introduction to his films.
Both are being distributed by Icarus Films as part of dGenerate Films’ collection of independent Chinese movies, curated by the American film producer Karin Chien.
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Hu’s films are personal takes on several critical turning points in modern Chinese history, especially the persecution of independent thinkers in the 1950s, the famine that followed it, and the Cultural Revolution a decade later. He hunts down survivors, finds rare written material, and creates a composite history in which he is also very much present as a narrator and judge, clearly taking sides with the victims of Maoist China.
Almost all of his films come across as radically low-tech. For years he used a battered Sony Handycam, and he almost never uses lights or multiple cameras — largely because he works alone, but also to give the feeling of authenticity and discovery, as if the viewer were on a journey with Hu to discover a forbidden past.
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. . . he became famous among China’s intelligentsia for his 2004 film, “Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul,” one of the films being released by Icarus. It recounts the story of a political prisoner who was executed in 1968 for refusing to renounce her political convictions. Hu traces Lin’s story through her classmates and friends, and especially through letters that she wrote with her own blood for lack of ink.
That led to “Spark,” about the magazine for which Lin Zhao wrote an epic poem describing the struggle for freedom from tyranny. First released in 2013, “Spark,” like all of Hu’s films, has been added to and re-edited, most recently to include testimony by a witness to the famine who wanted to wait until retiring to speak out.
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. . . he said he hoped his films would resonate today. “Spark,” he said, shows how even in the darkest era of the Mao period — the great famine of 1958 to 1961, which killed at least 30 million people — some were willing to stand up and be counted.
“This story has great significance today,” Hu said. “This country is a country with a unified governing structure, so if no one dares speak truth, a mistake will continue for a long time.”
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Though Hu’s critical works are now being made available to foreign audiences, pressure from the Chinese government makes it hard to arrange public showings there, Chien said.
This scrutiny began around 2015 when she and others put together a touring film festival called “Cinema on the Edge.” Hailed as “beyond the censors’ reach,” the film series ended up coming under intense pressure from the Chinese government. Filmmakers in China were warned to drop out and when the festival went ahead, but with less publicity, foreign outlets, especially universities, were told that screening the films could endanger their chance to work with China.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 28, 2020, and has the title “Excavating Chinese History, One Harrowing Film at a Time.”)