- Try to Remember
Official selection of the 2005 Yamagata International Documentary Festival and the 2005 Amsterdam International Documentary Festival
“Now it’s like a dream, one that aches,” says Liu Zhi, the subject of the documentary Try to Remember and the mother of the documentarian, twenty-two-year-old Zhong Jian. Liu’s words describe the focus of this film: Liu Zhi returns to her home, a rural village called Yantang, for the first time in many years and shares with her son bittersweet stories from her childhood during the Cultural Revolution. Zhong’s video camera captures a sorrowful and nostalgic portrait of their journey, where powerful memories emerge at every step.
On first gloss, most of Try to Remember resembles a student travelogue rather than a “made-for-TV” documentary. Basically, Zhong records his mother showing him places of interest, meeting local residents, and introducing him to relatives. But the tone of the documentary changes when Liu expands on her descriptions of life during the late years of the Cultural Revolution when life was “harsh” and full of “starvation” (Liu refers specifically to 1969–1978). First, we find that Liu’s life was unique. One of seven daughters born to farmers, Liu was the only one who was sent to school. Her family’s hope was that Liu would learn things to help the family manage their daily living. However, Liu entered an education system in turmoil as it was being transformed by the Cultural Revolution. Liu became a member of the Red Guard and observed routine beatings of people who were considered bad in ways that she did not understand. In one vivid memory, Liu recalls how she divulged to the local authorities that her parents were hiding a family tree tracing their ancestors. The genealogy was considered part of “the old ways of thinking” and was destroyed. To a certain extent, this emotional event defined Liu by putting her at odds with her family at such a young age.
Interspersed throughout Liu’s childhood stories are observations, both oral and visual, that explore contemporary life in rural China. From Liu, we learn that rural China is an almost timeless world with many of the daily practices remaining the same, from the tools and work required for daily sustenance to the complex familial system of village life. However, the documentary also shows dramatic change. Industrialization has affected the local environment, with many of the land and waterways becoming polluted, and processes of economic liberalization have allowed a style of commerce that, Liu adds, would have been considered illegal during the Cultural Revolution. [End Page 117]
Throughout the documentary, it is clear that Zhong wants to treat his mother and her story with reverence. Zhong rarely appears before the camera and keeps his presence to a minimum, only asking an occasional question for the sake of clarification. His mother speaks in long, uninterrupted takes, and she provides the only narration for many of the sights and sounds throughout the film. In between Liu’s stories, Zhong includes images of things such as old pots, fields, trees, the wind blowing through the grass, or a river flowing. Framed by silence or accompanied by the natural sound emanating from the image, these soft moments and small details seem to invite the viewer to imagine the tremendous events of the Cultural Revolution or contemplate village life in China.
My sense is that this dimension of Try to Remember reveals Zhong’s own feelings toward his experience as both filmmaker and son. For some people in their early twenties, the thought of going on a trip with your mother to rural China to visit her old village may seem uninviting, but Zhong thoughtfully digests his mother’s stories, which, given the gestures of his mother, are probably not new to Zhong. When the stories are told in context, however, both Zhong and the film take careful pause.
As Liu’s son, he is...