Saturday, February 14, 2015

Documentary - Storyville: Bulldozers, Paving Stones and Power: The Chinese Mayor

A fascinating documentary about the work of Geng Yabo, Mayor of Datong, a town of about 3m people known for its coal mining industry (which makes it the most polluted city in China) and historical monuments (hanging monasteries, Buddhas etc).

Mr Geng has huge ambitions for Datong, and no time to waste: he is rebuilding the 14th century city walls, watchtowers included, and housing cultural institutions within them. This means demolishing thousands of homes, building thousands of new flats elsewhere and relocating hundreds of thousands of Datong residents.

Pharaonic is the only appropriate term to describe his plans.

For me, its interest laid in the access the film maker was given, as he followed the mayor from meeting to his morning meet with disgruntled locals in need of help from someone in power to solve their problems, via his surveying of the progress of demolition and building works happening around town, and his telling off of underperforming suppliers and colleagues ('the hospital is still not finished!', 'the drain pipes are too small. Can you add one on the other side?').

One minute, he is there for the people: signing his name on official documents so that some local kids can go into a city school (rather than in the countryside, where their parents are originally from and so where they kids should go to school, even though the family has moved to Datong); telling officials to look into the case of a woman who, in tears, is pleading to get a flat near the South West wall as her daughter works near there; listening to a man who was forcibly removed from his house and beaten up by the police. There is a lot he seems to try and do for them, and I felt like it was him against the system.

But, a minute later, I would wonder if he eally felt for the people impacted by his grand decisions. He strongly believes in his dream of Datong as a Cultural Capital, and speaks with passion about the draw of history, art and culture for towns like Paris and Rome. But people who built their own homes 20-30 years before (illegally at the time) are being forced out to make way for his museums, and resort to sitting in front of demolition engines, in vain. But, for Mr Deng, these sacrifices are worth making in the long term.

His decisions also affect him personally: he works so hard his wife, angry, comes to see him in his office and nags him in the elevator 'Are you tired of living?? What time did you leave for work this morning?' (6am) 'You won't be back til 10pm! You will kill us all!'. Later on in the documentary, she calls him 'Are you tired of living???', and so does his son ('Don't worry, Dad is not working too hard. I am sleeping well at the moment' Geng tells him).

The theatre of dictatorship also made me wonder how people could carry on pretending all was fine. At his election, the 337 Datong delegates have to 'elect 1 mayor, out  of 1 candidate'. 'Votes counted: 337. Votes valid: 337. Mr Geng is elected Mayor of Datong'. Cue applause and bows of modesty. Why go through it and waste everyone's time? This feeling is reinforced when, at the end of the documentary, Geng is suddenly transferred to the provincial capital of Tayiuan, with no notice - though there is time for a farewell banquet.

A few Datong residents stage a demo, asking for Geng to stay as Mayor. Others, on camera, talk about a broken system, not being heard, feeling powerless in the face of government and business interests. It makes you hope that dissent is growing? How long can people be stamped on before they say enough?

As an old man says: 'the water can bear the boat, but it can also swallow it'.

Other than this look inside daily Chinese politics and life, the doco has some beautiful shots - including one of fireworks exploding all over, high above the city, on Chinese New Year. I'll have to be in China one year at that time to experience it!

You can read about Datong in this Guardian article.

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