24 City – What’s true in a documentary mixed with fiction?

Jia Zhangke’s “24 City” resists the typical genre labels we might try to ascribe to it.  Although it deals with real spaces, changing over time, it also includes several actors in staged situations, intermingling the real and unreal.  This mixture complicates the four fundamental ‘tendencies’ by which documentaries frequently operate: to record, to analyze, to persuade, and to express.  What does “24 City” record?  On the one hand, it preserves visual evidence of the 420 Factory in the various stages of being disassembled. On the other hand, though, it also presents us with interviews that audience members most likely conceptualize as a primary source: the oral history of those living in and around the factory.  The ‘real’ evidence preserved then is either compromised, enhanced, or contradicted by the fiction that accompanies it.  When we think about the other functions of a documentary, they too become more complicated. If the documentary ‘expresses’ some sort of elegiac loss – then that ‘real’ loss is coupled with loss that is only imaginary, artistic, and fictional.

In a telling review of the film, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis writes that it is “shot in digital so sharp it looks hyper-real.” In fact, some of the shots of the film, while reminiscent of places I have actually been and seen, feel like ‘hyper-real’ representations of those places.  In the opening credits, one shot frames the jagged angles of a staircase in a concentric spiral that looks like many staircases I have actually seen, but is so still, and angled in such a precariously asymmetrical way, that it seems ‘hyper-real.’  Whatever expression of dislocation or record of a dilapidated factory were inherent in the actual setting and milieu of the 420 Factory, Jia Zhangke has taken framed it in ways that ‘hyper-express’ and ‘hyper-record.’  That said, these perceptions are those of Jia Zhangke and his cameraman, and are thus only perceived only secondarily by the audience.  What feels like ‘truth on screen,’ we must remember, owes its form to the camera that shapes it.

24 City Movie Poster

24 City Movie Poster, via Wikipedia

In one scene, given the title ‘Dali’ a woman carries a bag of IV fluid across a stretch of cityscape and then up a staircase.  When first watching the film, I thought nothing of the deliberate posturing that must have occurred.  Without specific stage directions, coordination, and tracking (the camera looks like it is sometimes on a rail, but there may just be a particularly steady cameraman), Jia Zhangke could not have known how to prepare for the shot.  Whether or not the woman is an actor, the director has altered not only the cinematography that informs our perception, but also the mise-en-scene itself; the action occurs in a way that he has predetermined.  In another telling example, two factory workers stand together – one with his arm around the other.  Attempting to make his friend laugh, one man tickles the face of the other, intentionally trying to embarrass him in front of the camera. The feelings of companionship, of an awkward relationship, and of humor all owe their presence to the fact that the camera is there. Without it, none of this could have occurred.

In a broader sense, these depictions of dislocation, love, friendship, personal anecdotes, and personal history all coalesce in a depiction that is at once ‘untrue’ and simultaneously ‘hyper-true.’  In a book on the Boxer Rebellion, historian Paul Cohen provides a framework for conceptualizing the event that may be of some use here. His book, entitled “History in Three Keys” divides an actual ‘event’ into its component ‘keys’: ‘event,’ ‘experience,’ and ‘mythology.’  When we watch “24 City” we see not only an ‘event’ (the closing of 420 in preparation for building a residential complex), but also ‘experience’ both expressed by the anecdotes of real people, and projected by Jia Zhangke onto the scene.  Lastly, the film also presents us with ‘mythology’ – perceptions of perceptions that spiral out of proportion into the ‘persuasive’ and ‘analytical’ implications of the film.  It mythologizes this event in order to make a statement that might feel like an elegy for this piece of the modern world or a critique of the policies that made this ‘untrue’ and ‘hyper-true’ world as it is.


About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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