When I arrived at the Northside Cafe for my interview with student documentarian Tianzong Jiang, he was already waiting for me. Jiang runs right on time (I’m on Berkeley time). He introduced himself and then waited for me to get a drink before our interview began. If I needed to clarify a point or ask him to repeat something, he did so without complaint. Jiang was accommodating to the point where I wondered who was interviewing whom. As we walked down the road to watch Jiang’s film, “November 9th Protest,” I came to understand that Jiang represented the irony of interviewing a documentarian. How does one interview and understand another whose profession is to observe?
And it is a profession that has brought Jiang some recent success. The topic of our conversation is his film about the Occupy Cal movement, “November 9th Protest,” which screened this week at the Pacific Film Archive as part of the “Universal, Unique, Untouched” showcase of Bay Area student films. Jiang was uncertain about his film’s chances and submitted “Protest” along with another film that was more “avant garde and experimental – I thought that one was more likely to get picked.”
“November 9th Protest” is an observational documentary about the clash between student demonstrators and the police on Sproul Plaza. The film tries to keep commentary to a minimum. If there is any intrusion on the part of the author, it comes in the form of simple white on black title cards that offer historical context to the images on screen. That is not to imply that “Protest” feels like an outsider looking in on the protests. Jiang’s camera takes us to the front lines of the conflict. In one scene, the camera pans frantically left and right as he realizes he is in “no mans land” between a line of advancing riot police and the front line of the demonstrators.
Jiang and I went to the Daily Cal’s office to watch his film together. He was relatively quiet throughout, as objective and invisible as his film. Occasionally he offered a quick clarification. “This is Riefenstahl” he said comparing the famous Nazi documentarian’s compositions to a shot of armed policemen closing ranks around Sproul Hall. The vertical lines are very Triumph of the Will. I asked whether shooting police in a way that evoked Naziism compromised the impartiality he was aiming at. He politely considered my question, but insisted that it was more about comparing images of authority closing ranks to protect itself. Not a statement, he insisted. Just an observation.
The family of Tianzong Jiang are no strangers to protest. In 1989, Jiang’s uncle protested against the Chinese government in Tiananmen square. When the protest turned violent, Jiang’s father feared for his brother’s safety. When asked what his uncle thought about the protest now, Jiang is characteristically middle-way. “There are two sides to protest. It’s easy to be a student and say, let’s overthrow the government.”
It’s a sentiment he echoed in his thoughts on the Occupy Cal protest. Throughout the long night (he filmed from seven in the evening until two the next morning), his mantra was not to take any position on the demonstration: “I just film what I see.” During an excruciating long take of two police officers beating a student on the ground, it becomes somewhat difficult, for the viewer at least, to maintain an impartial view. It’s at this point that Jiang confesses he’s “slightly” pro-students. “They are actually peaceful — the police were violent — I just don’t see why authority has to act so radically,” he admits.
Despite the horrific events he observed, for Jiang, film is something of a dream. Though he had wanted to be a filmmaker since middle school, he enrolled at UC Davis Business School in 2009. When the essays and homework started to mount up, he questioned his decision. Following his instinct, Jiang switched paths and studied at a community college in Cupertino for 2 years, gaining valuable experience in film production. Unlike UC Davis, community college offered Jiang the choice between writing an essay and making a film for each of his assignments. Jiang’s response was simple: “I’ll never write an essay if there’s an opportunity to make a film.” After transferring to Cal and taking advantage of the film opportunities in the East Bay — including a stint doing multimedia for the Daily Californian — Jiang’s career change seems to have borne fruit.
But what about Occupy Cal? Does he not think the protestors were fighting to keep the opportunities that have served him so well? He considers my question, “It’s too early for conclusions about the Occupy movement.” Perhaps more can be gleaned from Jiang’s film. The last scene is a moving speech from one of the demonstrators who offers an olive branch to the police through the “people’s microphone,” a strictly democratic way by which Occupy protesters conveyed messages by repeating the speakers’ statements en masse until they reached the back of the crowd. It’s a touching moment of solidarity that concludes a harrowing 11 minutes of cinema. The camera, as ever, is impartial. It barely moves, but it lets the demonstrator speak. I wonder if Tianzong Jiang might be a cinematic people’s mic, quietly and judiciously waiting to convey the peoples’ stories to the masses.
Thomas Coughlan is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]
Comments should remain on topic, concerning the article or blog post to which they are connected. Brevity is encouraged. Posting under a pseudonym is discouraged, but permitted. The Daily Cal encourages readers to voice their opinions respectfully in regard to the readers, writers and contributors of The Daily Californian. Comments are not pre-moderated, but may be removed if deemed to be in violation of this policy. Click here to read the full comment policy.