Sundance 2015: An Inside Look at Communism in 'The Chinese Mayor'
by Alex Billington
February 2, 2015
China is a endlessly fascinating country. With a population over 1.3 billion people, it's impressive that they can operate with a communist government yet still thrive and remain as powerful and successful as they currently are. I'm even more curious about the government: how exactly it works, how the entire hierarchy is structured, and how they're able to make progress and push forward when so many seem so vehemently against the system. The documentary The Chinese Mayor, which recently won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for "Unparalleled Access", is a remarkable inside look at how one ambitious mayor in China tried to revitalize his city with his citizen's best interests at heart in the face of constant opposition. It's fantastic.
Geng Tanbo is the mayor of the city of Datong (Google Maps), which was once the capitol during Imperial China and is now one of the most polluted cities in the country. He has made it his personal mission to not only clean-up the city, but also turn it into a thriving cultural center, attracting tourists and encouraging a thriving population that will revitalize it and return Datong to its former glory. It's not easy, as Tanbo must not only address the concerns of his citizens (many of whom must be relocated) but also remain faithful to the communist party and the system that controls the entire country. The documentary follows Tanbo for a number of years, taking us inside meetings and right onto the streets as he tries to do good for his people.
Directed by Hao Zhou (Using, The Transition Period, The Night previously), The Chinese Mayor presents one of the most fascinating inside looks at modern China that I have ever encountered (it's much better than Web Junkie or The Iron Ministry, other recent docs about China). The investigation is so intimate, yet so carefully and effortlessly constructed, that it feels neutral or even ambiguous at times showing moments where unconventional help is provided; yet it also shows residents very upset at what's happening around them. The power of the documentary is in its approach to humanity, and the way it allows the viewer to easily understand both sides and determine how they feel on their own, by reaching out to citizens directly.
The plan for the city is quite ambitious: Tanbo wants to reconstruct a massive wall around the entire city, like it used to have thousands of years ago. To do this, he must demolish hundreds of buildings, sometimes displacing residents in homes they built themselves (in return they're offered brand new housing on the other side of the city). But it's all about revitalizing Datong, and while some complain that these plans are harmful, we also see many others who respect what he does. There's even a scene where Tanbo signs a paper himself, right on the street, to support farmers who couldn't get their kids enrolled in the local school after they were forced to move. It's a glimmer of hope amidst the chaos of government control that's so prevalent.
I admire how nicely the filmmakers balance the story of the mayor, with a glimpse into his inner-workings, and the story of the people he's serving. However, more than anything it was the footage itself that was the most impressive, taking us inside government meetings and votes, showing us how their communism actually works. It was utterly fascinating, and I loved every second of it, because it shows us that this isn't as terrible as some have made it out to be. And although there are many people we observe who fail to care or keep up with their work, at the very least there is one man trying to make a difference. Trying to care about his city and it's people as much as the communist party he's serving. I hope this doc will be viewed by many.
Alex's Sundance 2015 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing