Up Against It

Democracy struggles in contemporary China (Lost Course). Traveling rough in the Great Depression (Riding the Rails).

By Kelly Vance

In Jill Li’s illuminating new documentary Lost Course, a mainland Chinese fishing village is revealed as yet another flash point in that country’s ongoing contest between authoritarianism and its citizens’ dreams of representative democracy. The argument started over a piece of waterfront real estate in the down-at-the-heels coastal community of Wukan, in Guangdong Province.

The movie opens at a loud and energetic public protest gathering in 2011, with angry villagers hoisting banners and chanting: “Down with corrupt officials!” To hear community leaders explain it to the camera, a parcel of fertile seaside farmland that rightfully belongs to Wukan residents has been usurped by the government-appointed Village Committee, with an eye toward development—and with big-money interests reaping all the benefits. As we watch, Wukan’s grassroots uprising in the streets leads to an all-too-familiar series of recriminations and political shenanigans. Protest leaders are arrested by secret police, and at least one citizen dies in detention.

But then international journalists start to arrive, despite central government complaints against “foreign garbage media.” As time goes by and the heat rises, a new Village Committee vote is called for—with the most strident villagers declaring that the main issue is democratic elections, not land use. All the while, Wukan’s populist leaders righteously adhere to Communist principles—as compared to the high officials, a clique of well-fed, fashionably dressed slicks who travel with their own security detail and drive expensive cars. Change eventually takes place, but not without its cruel ironies.

We could be excused for seeing the curiously-titled Lost Course—an Icarus Films release presented by the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive—as the latest bulletin from China’s pro-democracy movement. Much of the broadcast news about contemporary Chinese life that gets delivered to American audiences these days paints a portrait of upwardly-mobile social contentment, i.e., prosperous modern consumerism. That’s not necessarily so, says Li’s doc, a fascinating glimpse into working-class Chinese politics. 

Filmmaker Li appears online for a livestream Q&A with UC Berkeley professor Rachel Stern on March 9  at 6:00pm.

How bad was the Great Depression? So bad that an estimated 250,000 American teenagers lived on the road, alone. Riding the Rails, a re-released 1998 PBS American Experience documentary, introduces us to the men—and one woman—who left home to look for work, or find adventure, as young footloose transients in hard times during the 1930s. The doc’s writer-directors, Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys, put out a call for one-time clandestine train hoppers to share their experiences. What the ex-nomads had to say puts this country’s socio-economic gyrations in sharp, ironic perspective.

The safety net was almost non-existent. Inexperienced kids could be mutilated or killed under heavy steel machinery, beaten by brutal “yard bulls,” robbed or raped in “hobo jungle” encampments, cheated by predatory bosses or merely shunned when they went from door to door seeking a handout or a job. And yet years later, senior citizen Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds views the wandering life as “the last free, red-blooded adventure available to today’s Americans.” His father was a stock broker who lost his business and the family home. “We went from middle-class gentility right down to scrabble-ass poor, overnight,” Symmonds says. “I was the logical breadwinner, so I had to go out as a fruit tramp [produce picker] and ride the freight trains to earn a little money.”

The award-winning doc features period music by Woody Guthrie, Brownie McGhee and Jimmie Rodgers, plus poignant newsreel clips of the era, with dazed-looking youths mugging bravely for the camera, and later scrambling on and off boxcars. Riding the Rails is an essential American history lesson.

“Lost Course” begins streaming March 5 via BAMPFA.org. “Riding the Rails” is streaming now on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Comcast.

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