By Christopher Bell | The Playlist January 14, 2011 at 3:45AM
Since 1996, Chinese director Zhao Liang has been documenting a large community of petitioners, ones that have been wronged by their local government and have camped outside of the law office to debate their troubles. These commoners are then forced to fill out paper work and await a hearing for seemingly as long as this office see fit, with most either given the run-around or forced out by thugs ("retrievers") that intercept these complaints and threaten with murder. The make-shift neighborhood consist of people who won't stop until they get the justice they so rightly deserve, whether that takes a few days or a decade is none of their concern. Food is found on the ground, shelter ranges from the interiors of a train station to the bottom area of a bridge.
It's pretty awful to say the least, and in the 12 years Zhao has been shooting them for "Petition," zero progress has been made (and this didn't begin when the cameras started rolling; there's a history here). He frames them in their slums bleakly, a grey glaze with no voice over, allowing everyone to speak for themselves in sharp contrast to their current dilemma. Notable subjects are a teacher (who eventually is jailed for organizing a memorial for a deceased petitioner) and a mother and daughter (who misses out on school for their plight). These are his strongest asset, those that are willing to give their story to the camera and allow audience connection to this monstrosity. What he does avoid, thankfully, is being too pitiful: these people are represented in all of their intricacies, in both good and bad light. Should the price of justice for the woman whose husband was killed due to a local government wrong-doing be her daughter's education? All human complexity is set on the table, with the aforementioned story taking the hardest turn when the daughter escapes to pursue a normal life, and the mother subsequently blames the filmmaker for endorsing her abandonment.
The camera is unflinching: dozens of striking moments are captured, including people being carried away from the law offices like objects and a riot breaking out between people and the "retrievers." One particularly unsettling scene involves a group of slick, well-dressed retrievers in a semi-circle around a defenseless female protester. In a tone not menacing but matter-of-fact along with a casual smile, one of the men utters "You better stop. We'll put you in the river. There are a billion people here, they won't miss one." It's chilling, borderline unreal. Two more petitioners were hit by a train after fleeing from a few chasing goons; Zhao follows those who walk along the tracks and discover not only their passports, but fragments of a skull, a jaw, and an unidentified chunk of flesh.
This version of "Petition" is the shorter of another, much longer cut, though even this abridged two hour version tends to feel a bit too slow-moving. Sometimes the repetitious nature of moments push the feeling of hopelessness, but overall there's quite a bit that could've been excised. One of the biggest misfires is how Zhao loses focus on the community as a whole. Since people have lived their for over a decade, it should feel like they have, but their relationships aren't explored at all. The target here is the failure of a government, but those involved are human beings. Their bond (and not just with their families, but those that live there) should be detailed to, at least to some extent, and not just brought up to further the director's point (such as the inclusion of the two petitioners dying, which feels more like that as opposed to people mourning a fallen companion).
Tough thing is, criticisms on the structure of a film with a subject like this seem moot. Taken as a regular documentary, sure, it has its faults, but the importance of it outweighs it all. That's not to say it should be given a free pass, but its quite impossible to forget the predicament of these people and the silliness they have to endure for years upon years for some fairness. [B+]