SIFF 2012 – Mobile Urbanism

Images: Old Dog directed by Pema Tseden, City World directed by Brent Chesanek, Ai Weiwei:Never Sorry directed by Alison Klayman.

SIFF 2012 – Mobile Urbanism – Expressions of Social Transformation and Globalization

Cities have their own histories and myths, their inhabitants contribute to define and shape their personalities. Films that carve a bit of that information in their cinematic narratives help viewers understand the signposts about urban ideas, location, culture and economy. The sums of these as well as other factors help render the distinctiveness of place and — for a city’s residents — the language of identity. The only thing constant is the pace of change and transformation. Cities, like their populations, are not idle but are always on the move.
The first weekend of the Seattle International Film Festival featured some films that sketched narratives in this terrain, entertaining a few ideas about contemporary urbanism and social transformation.  Filmmaker Brent Chesanek’s debut City Worldoverlays a fictional narrative and creation myth in a film filled with lush suburban impressions and cinematography in an Orlando bereft of people and activity. Drawing inspiration from the artificiality of Orlando as a destination for escapism, Chesanek’s film peers over backyard fences and past empty theme park lots to forge an alternative history. The result is a meditative work merging a fictional story with the culturally-inscribed urban landscape.
Pema Tseden’s film Old Dogexplores how social and cultural shifts usher in changes as rural Tibet becomes urbanized. The remote Qinghai province’s rugged vistas and mountains are backgrounded in Tseden’s focus on a shepherd dog’s fate – symbolically, the fate of Tibetan culture – in a village that’s gradually losing its heritage character with the emergence of new construction, development and population density. This dynamic force of economic activity coupled with the village’s cultural shift produces a sustained tension throughout the film, one that ultimately tests the shepherd’s resolve.
Artist Ai Weiwei whose articulate and critical commentary about living under China’s one country, two systems regime routinely tests the limits of expression through social media and communication.  His every moment becomes recorded, packaged and branded for a domestic Chinese audience and on the world stage through social media and from his museum work as the documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorryreveals.  But what distinguishes his actions is his level of social engagement using mobile and digital technology.  He not only shares his thoughts and comments, he invites participation as well.  After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he produced several projects and films to commemorate and document the individuals who died. One project was the result of identifying and recording the names of more than 5,000 children buried alive. Produced as an online radio project, volunteers read aloud each of the names of the deceased. His use of social media is a form of story-telling in a larger mobile urban context.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman’s generous portrait of the contemporary artist in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorryis like dipping into a cinematic stream of Ai Weiwei’s Twitter feed.  Martijn de Waal’s essay “Towards a MySpace Urbanism?” (The Mobile City, 2008) considers the concept of The Mobile City regarding individuals and their use of locative media. “City space, after all, is by now a hybrid space” defined no longer exclusively by physical size and dimension. Artist Ai Weiwei recognizes this and embraces the tools of locative media using his Blackberry, Twitter and Weibo accounts and leveraging other platforms like blogs and Google+ for social engagement in a personal struggle towards democratic freedom behind the Great Firewall of China.
Klayman accompanies Ai on his travels in and around China, from Beijing to Chengdu and Shanghai, and overseas to London and Munich, offering an intimate perspective about the artist, the son of Ai Qing a famous poet critical of the Communist regime in the 1950s. Sharing his father’s distrust towards China’s authoritarian politics energizes how he works, moves about, and informs his work. Once described as “China’s Andy Warhol,” Klayman’s film offers a much more complex personality nuanced by his representation of China in art and culture. His coming-of-age as a young artist in New York City during the 1980s reveals his struggle as a Chinese national living abroad that reached a pivotal point during 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests. This tumultuous period had greatly influenced his work.
By 1993, he returned to Beijing after his father became ill and established a new niche as one of several emerging contemporary Chinese artists. As one of the most recognizable names in art, he strides a delicate balance between how he has come to marquee and represent China as a contemporary artist in the world while testing the boundaries of political expression. Certainly, Ai Weiwei is aware of his own brand, a “brand of liberal thinking” he explains to Klayman when she questions him about his celebrity. Whether he is seen photographed gesturing with a middle finger towards Tiananmen Square or painting a historic urn with a Coca-Cola logo, Ai Weiwei playfully courts controversy.  When answering Klayman’s question as to what kind of artist he is, he describes himself as a kind of kind of chess player waiting for his opponent’s move.
Brent Chesanek’s film City World (SIFF 2012 World Premiere) reveals an experimental narrative shot on location in suburban Orlando, Florida, as told from the point of view of an unnamed and unidentified boy whose only depiction is from his pointed delivery and voice-over. The Orlando in City Worldis identified briefly from signage on a pedestrian bridge gleaming in silver from mid-morning sunlight but it is not a city bustling with activity, cars or people. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Chesanek photographed suburban backyards, screen-canopied swimming pools, and the gentle turning lanes and highways that traverse the flat open spaces near central Florida’s lush, tropical forests. The images of a depopulated Orlando bring to mind Matt Logue’s photography series Empty LA featuring Los Angeles eerily absent of traffic, cars and people on its freeways and streets.
The boy’s narrative in City World offers a creation myth about the settlement of the city at the site of a tall tree in the forest and its location as a battle site between Native Americans and soldiers. The tree is what the boy is drawn towards in seeking to free him from the suburban malaise he associates with his father’s lost interest in the world. This duality between the impotent domestic setting and an impulsiveness to escape from it towards his vision of a better future propels the boy’s to leave.
Chesanek is not setting out to produce a documentary about Orlando’s origins, but to consider Orlando’s identity as an inverted Shangri-La and re-imagined as the boy’s personal connection to a location, a place inside time, its history and future. Chesanek acknowledges that people do not come to Orlando to visit the city, but rather, to escape from it at nearby theme-parks. Walt Disney World Resort, Epcot Center, Universal Studios are some of the destinations for which Orlando spring-boards access to as portals towards a utopian fantasy. It’s the artificial that Orlando’s visitors find comfort in outside of the unorganized, unpredictable natural world. Underscoring this, City Worldflirts with this kind of imagery including a palm tree made from plastic, metal and aluminum turning in the breeze.
Urbanization in the setting of rural Tibet evokes a canary in the coal mine for Tibetan culture in Old Dog.  As one of the most significant trends towards a globalized world author Doug Saunders from his book “Arrival City” describes it as “the final shift of human populations from agricultural life to cities.”  Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden’s third feature Old Dogcaptures this concept succinctly in a narrative about the fate of a shepherd’s esteemed mastiff, an aging dog and one of the most prized canine breeds in the world that the shepherd’s son is trying to sell to a Chinese trader in town.
Set against the mountainous region of the Tibetan province of Qinghai, Old Dogis punctuated in the soundtrack’s background with the thunderous pounding of construction noise. This rural town with its shoddy construction looks to have surfaced overnight on the high mountain terrain, and —  like larger cities that have been jumpstarted with new development and construction projects  — the building continues. A muddy unpaved road cuts through a main drag of urban façades and modest Chinese storefronts bringing with it an import of Chinese inhabitants and culture in a post-colonial migration of urbanization. Tseden’s film bears witness to modernization in the margins of the story’s narrative focus about a rural Tibetan family cleaved apart from change. At home they pass time watching Chinese shopping networks on television and smoke cigarettes. In the village, the shepherd presses his son for medical answers about his son’s impotency and why he and his wife have not consummated their relationship with a child.
Meanwhile, the old shepherd’s mastiff has, perhaps, seen better days like his master in his youth before the advent of an urbanized Tibet which draws the film towards a close. A moral and existential crisis precipitating in the mastiff’s fate suggests that there is no monetary value for the erosion of cultural identity. In the final scenes of the film following its brutal ending, the shepherd strides forcefully but slowly through a golden hillside of dried grasses looking much like the opposite of “Bliss” — Microsoft’s Windows XP screen desktop image of blue sky and green hills.

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