Director. Zhao Liang. France-China. 2009. 123 mins.

Even Franz Kafka would find it hard to credit the systemic injustice denounced in Petition, an angry and harrowing investigation by Chinese documentary maker and artist Zhao Liang. The film, on which Zhao has been working since 1996, looks at the world of the ‘petitioners’, people who come to Beijing from all parts of China in order to plead their case against injustices, and who find themselves embroiled in a no-exit situation which leaves them homeless, impoverished, even disabled. The film, some of it shot using a secret camera, is an exemplary piece of journalism, and will be a must for television and for festivals, especially those with human rights interests, although theatrical prospects will be limited.

The film looks at the lives of petitioners who come to Beijing to visit its Complaints Office, and who find themselves stuck there for years on end, waiting to air grievances against local abuses of justice. Obliged to wait in the city, without much hope of winning redress, complainants find themselves living in the now-demolished ‘Petition Village’, a shanty town in which poverty reigns. Despite their living conditions, the interviewees generally state their determination to stay and see their case through.

To make things worse, local authorities send their own brutal and unscrupulous representatives, known as ‘retrievers’, to Beijing to dissuade petitioners. The odds against the wronged are so overwhelmingly stacked that one can only admire the determination of the multitudes who persist in their purpose.

Often shooting with a hidden camera, Zhao films and interviews a number of people, following some over the twelve years of the shoot. In particular, providing a narrative thread of sorts, he follows Qi, a woman determined to get justice for her husband’s unexplained death in hospital. In one of the film’s most painful moments, Qi’s daughter Juan decides to leave her mother and start a new life. Her return visit a couple of years later, with a child of her own, results in a painful confrontation – one of those moments at which Zhao’s approach appears uncomfortably intrusive.

The film offers more than its share of horror. Notably, after a woman fleeing from retrievers is run over by a train, other members of the petitioner community salvage her jawbone and a fragment of scalp to use as evidence if her case comes to light. Despite their oppression and the apparent hopelessness of their situation, the petitioners appear to be a tight-knit, mutually supportive community, as well as extremely lucid about their cause and what it represents. Many of them openly voice what seems to be the film’s own unequivocal message, that the current state of corruption in China will only end when democracy comes. 

In the final episodes, we see Petition Village demolished as part of the Olympics building programme, making petitioners’ living conditions even more untenable. The film’s end sequence contrasts their plight with the official image of a modern China projected by the fireworks of the Olympics opening ceremony.

The film offers no spoken commentary on events, but uses occasional captions to fill in additional background. If the situation Zhao depicts seems inexorably grim, hope is offered by the fact that he has succeeded in making this film, and by the fact that his subjects have had the courage to talk openly about their travails.

Production companies
ARTE France
Three Shadows

International sales
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Sylvie Blum

Zhao Liang

Zhao Liang
Sylvie Blum
Shun Zi
Bruno Barwise