People’s Park emerges from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the media anthropology program that recently yielded the superb Leviathan. There’s some overlap in personnel between the two films that’s reflected in their intersecting sensibilities: People’s Park co-director J.P. Sniadecki collaborated with Leviathan co-director Véréna Paravel on 2010’s Foreign Parts, another Sensory Ethnography Lab joint. But where Leviathan is radically discontinuous, cut together from countless abused GoPros and accounting for a panoply of perspectives into the ecosphere of a commercial fishing vessel, People’s Park takes an opposing tack, capturing the gentler rhythms of a public park in Chengdu, China in a single unbroken take.
Of course, it’s a gimmick. But the project of Sensory Ethnography Lab seems, at least in part, to be about taxing the formal boundaries of formal experimentation, either for its own sake or as a means of reconciling freewheeling experimentation with established formal stricture of documentary/nonfiction cinema forms. Even more than Leviathan, or Foreign Parts, People Park’s single take amble across the tailored topiary landscapes of an urban common feels like an exercise in for-its-own-sake-ness.
Simply shot, as revealed in a reflected giveaway, with Libbie D. Cohn running the camera in a wheelchair and Sniadecki pushing her along, People’s Park waves through throngs of Chinese locals, seen dancing, ordering barbecued skewers, cooling themselves with paper fans, and edging out of the path the filmmaker’s cheapo dolly. It may seem like an effort to sinuously apprehend the patterns, tempos, and faces of Sichuan’s capital, but the presence of the camera ruptures any sense of naturalism.
Throughout the film, or the shot, people look into the camera—waving, glowering, flashing two-finger “peace” salutes—naturally curious, or suspicious, of its presence. And beyond mere nods toward it, or wary turns away from it, certain Chengdu citizens (like the guy who moonwalks right through the frame) seem to be actively performing for Cohn and Sniadecki’s camera. The image of Sniadecki and Cohn that’s eventually revealed, whether by accident or intention, underscores the ludicrousness of their traversing the public square in a wheelchair, very deliberately marking them as outsiders: the Heisenbergian element inside an experiment they express little interest in controlling.
There’s a presumed element of racial other-ness as well. Where Cohn is Chinese-American, and so may be able to “pass” within People’s Park’s populist Chinese biome, the very large, very white Sniadecki might as well be decked out in a Hemingway-issue safari vest, a caricature of the outsider anthropologist attempting to structure an experience of cultural immersion. It’s like that paradox about the tourist who plans vacations to the sullied portions of far-off countries, as a way of experiencing something like the purity and authenticity of another culture, not realize that her very presence results in the fundamental expulsion of these qualities—if they even existed in the first place.
In places, it’s easy to believe that People’s Park was conceived by Cohn and Sniadecki as precisely as this sort of bogus tourist commentary, with their negotiated outsider status reflected back at them in all the half-confused looks toward their camera. It’s not so much an un-ruptured, fly-on-the-wall, day-in-the-life deal as an observation on the impossibility of presenting an unmediated experience on the lives of others. Aesthetically, People’s Park continuous long take presents a gentle comment on cinema’s relationship to a people’s history. Eighty-eight years after Battleship Potemkin, the revolutionary potential of film form may reside not in the jittery, juxtaposed montage of images and corresponding collision of meanings, but in the sense of community, and unbroken wholeness, that can only be sufficiently apprehended by a digital camcorder able of capturing the hi-def details of everyday life.