A sometimes plodding but cumulatively impactful examination of human-rights abuses in China, “Petition” lobbies on behalf of those who have lobbied in vain. Debuting documaker Zhao Liang spent more than 10 years following several self-described “petitioners,” whose tireless efforts to seek justice from their government have caused them no end of grief and ostracism. While this French-Chinese co-production could benefit from a tighter trim, its journalistic acuity, emotional force and unimpeachable agenda should rally socially oriented fests and cablers seeking worthy, relevant fare. Pic also merits widespread Chinese distribution through underground channels.
An unblinking record of human suffering, the film (whose French title means “Petition: The Court of the Complainants”) essentially grants its subjects the open forum and attentive ear denied them by authorities. Like his countryman Jia Zhangke, Zhao is casting an intensely critical eye on his country in the wake of rapid industrial change and an uneasy suspension between communism and democracy, but Zhao’s methods are more straightforward than Jia’s and his anger more palpable.
Since 1996, Zhao has filmed petitioners living in squalid, makeshift homes near Beijing’s Southern Railway Station; every day, they attempt to lodge complaints at the nearby petition office, where they are met with indifference, rejection and, if necessary, physical force to remove them from the premises. Since filming is forbidden in the petition office, Zhao used hidden cameras, and his secret footage of the treatment to which petitioners are often subjected is particularly galvanizing.
Complainants include farmers thrown out of their villages by authorities in cahoots with the local mafia, and homeowners who received no compensation for the government-ordered demolition of their houses. Many have come to Beijing from all over China and endured countless abuses — imprisonment, institutionalization, beatings — for their determination to speak out in protest.
The first half of the 129-minute docu reps a numbing catalog of grievances and, while it can make for repetitive viewing, it also speaks to Zhao’s point about the incalculable toll on ordinary citizens due to systemic corruption and denial of responsibility.
Despite “Petition’s” focus on the realities of its subjects’ daily lives, few vivid personalities emerge until the second half, when the film finds its key thread: Qi Huaying, who since 1987 has sought justice on behalf of her late husband, and her daughter, Fang Xiaojuan. The patience and longevity of Zhao’s years-in-the-making approach pays off enormously here, as he follows these two very different but equally courageous women to a devastating emotional confrontation.
Rather less successfully, the film contains at least two scenes that feel unnecessarily exploitative in their attempts to crank up the drama, one of them involving a petitioner trying to flee on train tracks from government henchmen. Elsewhere, the pic allows its subjects to argue for democracy in China and express their rather remarkable pride in their country — which, as Zhao demonstrates via footage of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, seems to care more about a grandstanding display of nationalistic showmanship than about its displaced citizenry.
Tech credits are pro for this low-budget guerrilla effort. Zhao’s voice is often heard phrasing questions during interviews, while occasional intertitles serve to streamline information and provide context.