Well folks, not all things are possible, even at one of the midwest’s best film festivals. I overshot my desired movie quota at sixteen and ended up seeing a smaller but still respectable ten. Unfortunately, the snowstorm kept me from staying for the last day, but I still got to see my high priority films on Saturday.
At 9:30. I went to see Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts, a study of suffering and transition via trauma therapist Poh Lin Lee’s sessions at a refugee compound on Australia’s Christmas Island. Alongside the depiction of Lee’s work and home life, Brady films the migration of native crabs from the jungle to the sea as a very forthright metaphor, but not in a way that feels forced, as the symbolic animals are as inherent to the geography as Lee’s patients. Locals work tirelessly to aid the crabs in their journey, setting lumber bridges and closing roads and sweeping them away from oncoming cars, while immigrants seeking asylum wait indefinitely at a compound that one detainee refers to as hell, where everyone he knows suffers as he watches helplessly.
As the central figure in the film, Poh Lin Lee is our ear for a handful of compound residents willing to be filmed during their sessions. The aforementioned individual who refers to the compound as hell has his appointment filmed the longest, giving the film its most heart wrenching scene. He claims to have never lived in a peaceful place in his life. When detailing being separated from his mother and discovering she has become too ill to stand on a subsequent visitation, he completely breaks down. Through the immense pain, he recalls that she continued to smile at him during the visit, something he can’t help but repeat over and over again through sobs before returning to a haunted thousand-yard-stare. Decades before, large swaths of Chinese immigrants settled on Christmas Island and now live freely, carrying on traditions to honor the dead, such as the burning of offerings to appease wandering ghosts. Languishing within restrictive and indefinite transience, the refugees are among these ghosts, but receive no offering aside from the assistance of Dr. Lee, which continually dwindles as the Australian government limits her access to patients.
In keeping with the immigration theme, I followed Island of the Hungry Ghosts with Hassan Fazili’s cell phone-shot Midnight Traveler, a record of him and his family fleeing their home in Afghanistan to escape the Taliban, who have called for his death. Watching this and the last film made for an emotionally taxing open to the day. The Fazilis spend three years as refugees, encountering duplicitous smugglers and violent hostilities in Bulgaria, all under the eyes of their young daughters who show the most impressive fortitude of all. Whereas Island of Hungry Ghosts stays still, Midnight Traveler never stops moving, making the viewing experience more draining despite being arguably more positive.
My third and final film, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation, conducts a revelatory investigation into the one-child policy in China, acting as a personal diary, history lesson, and sociological study of China’s relationship to the western world. Short in running time, Wang’s journey nevertheless covers much ground, and is both personal and broad in scope. The horrors enacted as a result of China’s policy comprise about half of the film in addition to coverage of the disturbing and blatant propaganda that riddles all forms of China’s communications and entertainment. Most startlingly, however, are the further discoveries regarding China’s enormous adoption industry. Wang, through the conduction of numerous testimonies, finds that many adopted girls in China had been trafficked to orphanages by independent contractors or the government, and the orphanages gave American parents sanitized backstories about them.
One Child Nation won the grand prix at the Sundance Film Festival, and with its festival circuit gaining momentum, the exposure to American audiences looms closer. Full disclosure: I have a sibling adopted from China. I can see this being explosive among adoptive families, but hopefully in a way that causes reflection instead of backlash. Regardless, One Child Nation will be enormously important for content alone, although Wang’s fearless and empathetic approach to her subjects (including propagators of the policy’s harsher aspects) stands out in my mind as the greatest and most moving elements. Whether powerless villagers or influential government officials, no one in this film comes across as a villain. Quite the opposite, they all appear as desperate people living under desperate measures in the wake of a terrifying population crisis. The cause and effect relationships that Wang so expertly outlines begs the question: would we have been any different, had it been us?
These three days have been trying, rewarding, depressing, and invigorating all at once. As tired as I feel, I hope to return for next year’s festival. Quality and quantity rarely combine as they do at True/False. | Nic Champion