At the Katorza art house cinema hall in Nantes renowned Chinese documentary director Wang Bing’s 2016 film Ta’ang screened in front of an almost full house this weekend at the Three Continents Film Festival.
The film follows a group of ethnic Chinese, mainly women and children, who have fled fighting along the border between China and Myanmar into China’s Yunan province.
The Myanmar army had been trying to quell a rebellion in the area where the Ta’ang minority live. The armed conflict has nothing to do with them but it puts their lives at risk.
"Ta’ang is an incredible movie. It’s about us getting as close as possible, to a point where we feel on a horizontal plane with what is happening,” comments Claire Desmoulins, a member of social sciences research group, the Institute of Present-Day History (IHTP), that helped compile the programme for the Exile –Becoming a Foreigner section at the festival this year.
Wang Bing, strapped a camera to his body. "It made me more discreet, as did filming mostly at night,” he says.
He sticks with the refugees, squatting in a makeshift camp open to the blustery wind and sun, piled into trucks to reach the closest town and find more solid shelter and work, sitting up at all hours around a candle flame, fighting fatigue and illness, fearing the worst that they have managed to flee with few possession. The audience may feel they are actually intruding on their conversations, yet compelled to listen to their plight.
“The films are about the departure, the arrival and the journey itself. And all the films take place with the community itself. To come closer to what they are feeling. Not films on exile but which deal with this experience,” says Desmoulins.
Different styles, different continents
Four films are features, four documentary, and each in different styles - autobiographical or pure adventure, as in the case of America, America, directed in 1964 by Elia Kazan, a descendant of an Ottoman Turkish family - in different continents, at different times but always an insider's view of the community itself.
Desmoulins says they sought to expose some essential feelings that separate people living in exile, self-imposed or otherwise.
“Perhaps the best example of the irreconcilable fracture between feelings of nostalgia which is part of exile, and the need to assimilate is the film about Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet," she says.
Simone Bitton's 1997 Mahmoud Darwish: And the Land as Language is "amazing because it shows through poetry how people become fragmented," Desmoulins feels. "It also shows the in-between place where your identity is shifting. It poses a cinema question, too, because it asks how to put words, migration words into pictures: also silences where you reappropriate what is left.”
Migrant, immigrants, refugees or exiled, the festival shows different takes on the same issue that has taken on critical proportions in war zones, poverty-striken regions and host regions.
As well as films from China, the US and the Middle East, there are Teza (2008) by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, Dialogues of Exiles (1974) by Chilean Raoul Ruiz, Quando Chegar O Momento: Dora (1978) co-directed by Brazilian Luiz Alberto Sanz and Lars Säfström, Anna Hui’s 1990 Song of the Exile and a 2016 French documentary about the present day, Spectres are Haunting Europe, codirected by two artists from Greece, filmmaker Maria Kourkouta and poet Nikki Giannari who encounter refugees heading for the Idomeni camp between Greece and Skopje.