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Review: Lost Course Is a Steadfast Look at a Chinese Resistance Movement

What distinguishes the film from ordinary journalism, and what constitutes its intervention in reality, is a difference in timescale.

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Lost Course
Photo: Icarus Films

As we know from slapstick comedy, a fly on the wall can turn any scene into a chaotic swirl of misaimed swats with a rolled-up newspaper, furniture reduced to smithereens, and schadenfreude-inducing pratfalls. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries run an analogous risk. Given how the act of observation necessarily alters that which is being observed, filmmakers must always choose how objective a stance to take in relation to their subjects—a choice with thorny ramifications should the subject happen to be political.

Some documentarians embrace this contradiction and record their own interventions as a part of the reality they document, as Joshua Oppenheimer does in The Act of Killing, inviting perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 to recreate their brutal “heroics” in front of the camera. At a cursory glance, first-time filmmaker Jill Li has opted for less hands-on approach with Lost Course, in which she documents a wave of protests in the Chinese fishing village of Wukan in Guangdong province that resulted in a failed democratic experiment.

In the film’s first part, “Protests,” Li’s camera plunges into the thick of the action as Wukan’s villagers, reacting to the sale of communal land by corrupt government officials, engage in mass demonstrations and collective petitioning, backed by a general strike. As the movement gains momentum, the film focuses in on a core of activists who are determined, seemingly with the best of intentions, to take on China’s one-party state apparatus. Eventually, the protests force the government to grant the villagers’ demands for a free election, and the movement’s leaders are swept into positions of modest power on the village committee.

Part two, “After Protests,” opens one year after the election. Bogged down in bureaucratic rigmarole, the new village committee has succeeded in restoring none of Wukan’s land. Meanwhile, higher tiers of government have co-opted their leadership, driving a wedge between them and their constituents. The years pass and disillusionment sets in as the villagers resign themselves to Wukan’s slow, inevitable decline.

With protests now infrequent, the space opens for Li—with a lyrical shot of red and white lanterns reflected in a rain puddle, or of a moth being immolated with zippo in a moment of despairing cruelty—to show the rhythms of everyday life as it returns to Wukan. These, though, remain exceptions to her rule of unobtrusive camerawork, which simply presents situations as they unfold, without the filmmaker ever stepping in to impose her own politics, or cast judgment on the villagers (which may account for how Li was permitted to film in the first place). Throughout, one senses that she’s cultivated their trust. Habituated to the camera’s presence, they seem to directly speak to the person behind it rather than an imagined audience, and even put themselves at risk by revealing sensitive details.

In the movement’s climactic moments, other film crews and journalists appear on the periphery, but when the dust settles, it’s Li’s camera that remains, delving into the everyday messiness that underlies the spectacle of demonstrations and elections. What distinguishes Li’s project from ordinary journalism, and what constitutes her intervention in reality, is a difference in timescale. In and of itself, the fact that Li spent six years (from 2011 to 2017) filming Wukan’s struggle, and perhaps more importantly, its aftermath, may seem inconsequential, but it’s this dedication to embedded filmmaking, combined with its three-hour running time, that gives Lost Course its power.

The film takes its time, not only to explore Wukan’s struggle as a process, in microcosm, of Chinese politics, but to develop a character study of those involved. Even as their passion and naïveté sour, and even as they abandon the fight, denounce one another, or cling blindly to past successes as their political movement stagnates, Li’s camera remains steadfastly sympathetic. Because her politics are only hinted at through that sympathy, she leaves the viewer to learn from and interpret the situation how they will. It’s become a commonplace that the personal is political, but Lost Course serves as a reminder that the political is also personal.

Director: Jill Li Distributor: Icarus Films Running Time: 180 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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