Photo courtesy of VIFF
DIR: J.P. Sniadecki, Libbie D. Cohn | Dragons and Tigers | USA, China | 2012 | 78 mins | Sichuanese, Mandarin
Please see VIFF Program Updates for additional screenings.
The initial intrigue of People's Park—it is filmed in one single continuous 75-minute shot — could have easily been its undoing. But what is exquisitely accomplished in this American-Chinese documentary could only have been achieved using this radical approach.
People's Park, which has its North American premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival this month, is set in the vibrant People's Park in Chengdu, Sichuan. In this documentary, American directors J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn transport the audience to Southern China on a sunny Saturday in July.
The park's lush soundscape is introduced while we're looking up at a light green leafy canopy. The camera slowly pans down as our ears tease out the layers of sound, shifting our view from the foliage above to people dancing—couples, casual clothes, patterned tops, a focus on dancing feet.
We move around the dance floor, some of the dancers meet our gaze. Throughout the 75-minute walk through park, amidst the pulsing activities, the eyes from hundreds of faces look back at us.
Reminded of our role as observers, we often find ourselves standing behind other onlookers. Searching for a gap between arms and shoulders and fans through which to see: people singing karaoke, two women confiding, a man reading the paper, a woman talking on a cell phone, a close up of a hand holding a lit cigarette, a young boy buying kebabs from a food stall, and people dancing.
In the park's tea hut, the camera sweeps past people drinking from brightly colored thermoses. A thirty-something man in a white polo shirt orders tea, the server pours, the man stares at the camera and adjusts his glasses. At this moment, the camera which has been constantly moving slowly and smoothly forward seems to pause ever so briefly and with this there is a temptation to stop moving with the camera, to pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea and take in the crowd. But, Sniadecki and Cohn's roaming camera reminds us, in fact insists, that there is too much to see in People's Park.
If you don't speak Sichuanese or Mandarin you won't be able to eavesdrop on conversations or understand the words of the songs that create an impromptu soundtrack to the film. Cohn explains, in a conversation after the film's North American premiere, that not including subtitles was a conscious decision — the result is that we all experience the film as if we are walking through the park, situated in our own subjectivities.
Single-shot feature films are extremely rare, and single-shot feature documentaries are an even more exotic species. There is of course Andy Warhol's 1964 black and white film Empire—a single shot, eight hours and five minutes long, of the Empire State Building. And, more recently, we have Aleksandr Sokurov's 2002 96-minute historical drama, Russian Ark, which included over 2,000 actors and was filmed in one continuous shot in the Russian State Hermitage Museum.
Cutting and editing allows the filmmaker to highlight and accentuate, strip away and eliminate. Through the use of one continuous shot, Sniadecki and Cohn allow us to experience People's Park in real time. What we are left with is a lasting impression of a complex and vibrant space and an accompanying longing to make the journey to Chengdu to walk through this park ourselves.
People's Park is Cohn's first feature film. Sniadecki's past films have received international acclaim including two Golden Leopards at the Locarno Film Festival and the Joris Ivens Award at the Cinema du Reel Film Festival.
People's Park offers an important contribution to the world of cinema and documentary filmmaking. Here's hoping VIFF will add an additional screening, or two.
Zoe Tennant is a Vancouverite who has lived elsewhere for many years. You can follow her @Zoe_Tennant