A Programmer's Chronicles, April 2007

A Programmer's Chronicles, April 2007

Wang Jingyao, widower of Bian Zhongyun from the 'Though I Am Gone' by Hu Jie (China, 2007)

by Gertjan Zuilhof

We talk about YouTube as if it has always been around. It is closely tied to a style and a genre. Typical of YouTube is a short burlesque film with a corny clue recorded in home-movie style. Usually childish. Often rubbish. But not always. YouTube is like a new continent that has to be mapped as you look and travel. Thanks to its name, fame and market value (just think of the dizzying takeover by Google) you might almost forget that the phenomenon still has to celebrate its second birthday (founded on 15 February 2005, it only became operational at the end of that year). Maybe you should conclude it was fully grown after a year like a kind of Internet cuckoo chick.

Despite the incredible growth of the phenomenon, the limitations are obvious. Without further clues as to what you want to, can or have to see, it’s like looking for a needle in a proverbial haystack. By the time no one knows what a haystack is any more, this proverb might have been re placed by “like looking for something beautiful on YouTube”, meaning an ocean of revolting rubbish.
The technical limitations are of course clear because of the juddering vagueness of many contributions, but let’s speculate that this is only a question of time. You don’t have to be a clairvoyant to predict YouTube 2.0 with high-definition quality.

Still from 'Though I Am Gone' by Hu Jie (China, 2007), poster with threats by Red GuardistsThe importance of YouTube – and its importance is basically just as apparent as the limitations – is not to be found in quality or insight but in the simple fact that it is commonplace. Just like Internet itself or water from the tap. It gives anyone who wants an opportunity to share his film with the world. That provides the haystack of rubbish, but also needle that makes it all worthwhile. Take the case of Though I Am Gone by the Chinese documentary maker Hu Jie.

I read about the film in the Dutch daily Volkskrant (on 16 April), but the story about the film that resulted in the banning (‘delay’) of the whole Yunnan festival had already circulated on many Internet blogs and the controversial film had already been cut into 10 pieces for YouTube.
(Though I Am Gone by Hu Jie on YouTube)

Still from 'Though I Am Gone' by Hu Jie (China, 2007), pic made by Wang Jingyao of his daughters taking care of their mother's bodyIt’s a documentary lasting more than an hour taking a painfully precise look at the death of a teacher at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in Beijing. At first sight it looks like an ordinary committed documentary. Possibly historically important, a striking document, but probably not a real needle from the mediocre hay stack. I didn’t look at all the parts right away. It was only later, when I tried to explain to someone what kind of film it was, that I looked at the other parts with growing fascination and amazement.

Still from 'Though I Am Gone' by Hu Jie (China, 2007), photocamera of Wang JingyaoThe film is about the gruesome death of the teacher Bian Zhongyun in the Bloody August of 1966. She was beaten to death by the girls of her school, fanatical Red Guard girls, after weeks of bullying. The protagonist in the film is however her former husband Wang Jingyao. Wang was a scientist and he immediately started documenting the circumstances surrounding the death of his wife. The day after her death, he bought a camera and used it to photograph the body and the way his daughters washed their mother’s corpse. That set the tone for the film. Functionally and in black & white, many more horrifying and emotional details follow.

Still from 'Though I Am Gone' by Hu Jie (China, 2007), watch that belonged to Bian ZhongyunFilm maker Hu Jie allows Wang to unpack in front of the camera all the effects collected including his wife’s bloodstained and dirty underpants. What can you compare this to? Nuit et Brouillard? Shoah? Hu Jie may not be a Resnais or a Lanzmann, but Wang is. He has collected the evidence and kept it all his life in the certainty that one day it would do its legal work. CSI Beijing.

It isn’t certain that Bian Zhongyun was the first fatal victim of the Cultural Revolution (although at least 3 million more would follow). Her death is however certainly the best documented.

Still from 'Though I Am Gone' by Hu Jie (China, 2007), Wang showing the bloodstained clothes of his wife Bian ZhongyunThe girls who quite openly beat their teacher to death were all attending an elite school. Their parents belonged to the top ranks of the party and they themselves are still functionaries of the system. Only a very occasional woman who has emigrated talks about the ideological insanity that came over the girls, but apart from that everyone continues to remain silent and in denial. And they still have the power to ban the film and the whole festival around it.

The irony of this story about the presence of Though I Am Gone on YouTube is that the Chinese authorities have had the film blocked for China. Water out of the tap, but apparently not always and for everyone. The army in Thailand had YouTube blocked in its entirety and that does tend to give one less hope about the future of YouTube as an opportunity to screen anything that moves and could move us.