Sundance 2015: ‘The Chinese Mayor’ Is the First Great Political Documentary of the Year

Sundance Film Festival

Datong is an overwhelming place. Home to three and a half million people, this historic mining center is now the most polluted city in China. Like many metropolises in the world’s largest nation, it also has a huge housing problem. The scale of these urban challenges is the visual foreground of Hao Zhou’s The Chinese Mayor, the first great political documentary of 2015. New apartment blocks tower over nearby lots, which would be empty were they not brimming over with piles of rubble. Everything seems bigger in Datong, from the 21st century developments to the 5th century Buddhist temple grottoes carved out of rock.

Zhou uses his camera to capture the physicality of Datong’s contradictions. He finds small dogs amidst the remains of knocked down houses, modern tourists visiting ancient sites, and newly relocated farmers stranded in the urban school system. In the middle of it all is Mayor Geng Yanbo, the incarnation of Datong’s confused coexistences. He’s an atheist Communist with a little figurine of Chairman Mao on his dashboard, in the company of which he recites Buddhist mantras. His signature project is the reconstruction of an enormous 14th century wall that encircled the city. It is at once a symbol of cultural history and 21st century construction, a replica of a medieval monument of the state produced by contemporary China’s bevy of independent and enormously wealthy contractors.

Mayor Geng gives Zhou what appears to be almost unlimited permission to follow him around with a camera. It appears that all of his time has been occupied by his cultural revitalization project since his tenure began in 2008. His plan is to demolish an unfathomable number of homes and replace them with both new housing blocks and cultural monuments, like the wall. He wants Datong to be like Paris or Rome, a city with a living history that allows it to move from mining to tourism. He works 18 hour days and he has to live in a military compound for his safety. When you demolish upwards of 200,000 homes, after all, people are likely to be a bit miffed.

The infuriated residents of Datong made temporarily homeless by Geng’s initiatives speak to the political question at the center of The Chinese Mayor, handled by Zhou with the same intuitive ambiguity he directs at the city’s landscape. Privately built homes in Datong are illegal, but that hasn’t stopped their construction. Many of these buildings, which range from modest shacks to more indulgent houses, have stood for years. Now they’re all coming down. Geng visits these homes with the intent to help, and to listen to complaints not only of bureaucratic delays but physical intimidation by those employed to carry out evictions. He is beloved for the active hand he takes, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is using state power to dramatically disrupt lives. His ambition for reform and urban renewal can’t be removed from the apparatus around him, which seems to take as much of a toll on his own psychological strength as it does on the Datong landscape.

Zhou refines his portrait of Geng by featuring as many different voices as possible, aware that a politician is equal parts private citizen and public image. He interviews evicted citizens, both those with the means to sue the state and those with no other recourse. He takes in the chatter in public spaces, recording everyone who will share their thoughts. The city appears as an active and open community, if not politically then at least vocally. In one scene he even records an argument between locals about whether he and his camera are a welcome set of eyes or another tool of the state. One of the men defends Zhou as a modern Michelangelo Antonioni, who came to China in the 1960s to document the Cultural Revolution.

In this way, another central theme of The Chinese Mayor is the role of the documentarian. Zhou gets many privileged moments of quiet conversation with Geng, both personal and political. He doesn’t edit out his voices or mask his presence. The Chinese Mayor is no partisan essay, either condemning the system or praising one man’s vision. That wouldn’t work, either as a statement of purpose or a piece of nonfiction art. Instead, this is a panorama both physical and political, committed to as wide an angle as possible. In a place as big as Datong, anything more narrow would be dishonest.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.