I hate to admit it, but it has been a while since I’ve watched a documentary film. It’s not that I think they are slow or boring, it is just that recent documentaries seem created to express a single point of view. I’ve never been a fan of this approach. Either you agree with the filmmaker and learn nothing new, or you end up throwing something—preferably a soft slipper or dog toy—at the television in utter disbelief.
Happily, I recently came across two excellent new documentaries that try to explore interesting topics and not just hit you over the head with ideology.
Last Train Home is an exploration of one of the largest human migrations ever. Every year, during the New Year’s holiday, 130 million workers in cities all over China return to their families in the country side. This is a monumental event, but the director, Lixin Fan, doesn’t examine it from the top down. Instead he records one family’s participation over several years. There is no narration to guide the viewer, but very soon you get immersed in the story of the Zhang family.
For 16 years both parents have been working in a garment factory to support their family. During all that time they have only been able to visit their children during the New Year’s holiday. The tension during these visits, not to mention the herculean labor of getting home, is intense. Add their teenage daughter Qin, who resents her parents’ absence and their emphasis on education, and you get a combustible mix.
Last Train Home offers no easy answers. Instead it allows you to take a peek into a different world and get immersed in a family’s struggle to survive.
Using a similar approach, A Film Unfinished examines a huge historical event, the Warsaw Ghetto, by focusing on the smaller details. In this case, the small detail is an unfinished propaganda film that the Nazis made in the Warsaw Ghetto just weeks before deportations to the death camps began. While the unfinished film was discovered in an East German archive after the war, another reel of outtakes came to light in the late 1990s.
Through interviews with survivors, testimony of one of the photographers and the disturbing outtake reel, A Film Unfinished does more than just document a historical incident. It illuminates the lives of those who lived through, and some who took part in, a pathetic attempt to obscure a horrible truth. This film is all the more powerful due to its refusal to offer a simple explanation of events. The viewer has to create any meaning or reasons why.
So take a chance and skip the partisan lecture the next time you watch a documentary. Your television will thank you.