As if making a contradictory study to the more politically motivated documentaries made in and about China, J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie Dina Cohn turn an observational eye on the more prosaic aspects of the country. The duo stakes out a spot in one of the many green spaces of China's paved dusty metropolises--in this case People's Park in Chengdu--and offers a distinctive slice of life in the land of 1.3 billion. In one long, floating 75-minute shot, People's Park captures all the vibrancy, cacophony, and tranquility that the park has to offer.
Despite the construction boom in China's cities, public parks--both large and small--dot the urban landscapes, offering a respite from the concrete jungles. This is the place where the common people escape to dance, sing, relax, eat, dink tea, play chess, or, like the viewers, just sit back and people watch. The parks become a menagerie of diverse activities and infectious energy, especially on the weekends. To my own foreign eyes, a stroll in a park in China was often no less than exploring a cabinet of curiosities.
People's Park, receiving its North American premiere at VIFF, taps into this unaffected vitality as the camera slowly weaves its way around the park and through the people. Using the DIY dolly of a wheelchair (briefly seen in a reflection with Cohn sitting and shooting and Sniadecki pushing,) the unblinking gaze of the camera engages people on many different levels, with an occasional wave or peace sign, but most startlingly when they just stare right back, recalling the poignant moments expounded upon in Chris Marker's San Soleil.
At the nucleus of the film, the camera traverses a large terrace with tables and tables of people eating and talking and sitting. The thematic fireworks of the film is the performing--the dancing, both classical and frenetic, that bookends the film, and the interminable singing everywhere. But it is the window on these quiet moments, as people casually chat with each other or nonchalantly while away the time, where this gentle, ground level surveillance is at its most absorbing.
The fact that no one gets angry or that kids don't break out into a chorus of "hello" toward Cohn and Sniadecki is merely evidence the amount of preparation that went into this seemingly effortless walk through the park. Great care has also gone into the careful ambient soundtrack that was necessitated by the various types of live music, most of it enhanced with the oh-so-familiar vocal reverb that accompanies karaoke. The lively musical milieu transitions seamlessly to the waxing and waning of conversations as the camera makes its way around the park. You needn't look further than the two person credits and its successful Kickstarter campaign to know that this is a small project of personal importance.
Sniadecki, co-director of Foreign Parts which played the NYFF two years ago, is a PhD candidate in the new media anthropology program at Harvard and this documentary is a project of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, an organization that "supports innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography." This makes the film sound far more academic on the page than it is on screen. That People's Park lacks a defined purpose or personality might be the earmark of an ethnographic film, but for the audience, it's a breath of fresh air from the typical documentary film, illustrated in the gleeful multi-generational dance finale. Although Cohn and Sniadecki's film may have a stunt element to it, one shouldn't underestimate the unique pleasure of simply sitting and watching the rhythms of life in this small corner of the world.