From the Editor’s Desk

optima

Photographer and documentarian John Rash’s film “Yangtze Drift” was shown this year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and recently screened at the Carrack. It opens with an amazingly breathtaking, long, single shot, downward from the bottom of a cable car rolling over the “old Chongqing” China, a placed marked for destruction.

He does not tell us that in words. There are no words in English in “Yangtze Drift,” nor really in Chinese, save in the background noise, yet, to me, the story was perfectly clear.1

John Rash

John Rash

 

When I mention I saw a film about the Yangtze River the first thing everyone says is, “Oh, the Three Gorges Dam?”

The dam is a minor character mostly off-stage in Rash’s story. Shot in black-white, “Yangtze Drift” encourages the viewer to absorb the images in an idealized form almost archetype-ally. Instead of being about the dam, the film is a window into Yangtze River life after the dam.

The message, life goes on. We peer in windows. The camera stays steady offering the audience, stability, grounding, and a frame as the river rolls by, sometimes lapping against worn buildings with lattice work and smoking residents, sometimes rippling and reflecting in the sun, sometimes roiled by ancient looking hand-cranked boats. We observe the Yangtze as the rinse cycle for the washing machine.

Life Goes On

We all experience grief and death, but Life goes on.

Laundry doesn’t stop for a dam. Life isn’t artificial, no matter how much authority might imply it can be. At a riverside museum Rash looks through his camera’s lens out fake portholes showing film of wildlife and wetlands that no longer exist. It is a construct that rings familiar in America. If we cannot preserve the way, at least Disney-fy it, preserve a caricatured memory of it. (Epcot was a trendsetter for a phenomenon that now extends to such American landmarks as Times Square and Pennsylvania Avenue.)

His shots of the People’s Republic’s museum speak volumes even for those of us who cannot understand the guide’s language echoing through a crackling microphone. Officialdom wants to maintain the veneer that it did everything right or at least everything it could. And river keeps rolling on…

The birds don’t look back at Rash because they aren’t really there. But almost everyone else he films does. It democratizes the experience. Rather than Rash sticking his camera in unwitting subjects’ faces, frequently the filmed simply whip out their cellphone and film him back.

Such as it is in the age of information amplification. Rash said although he was unobtrusive, he was never cagey or secretive in his attempts to shoot. His explanation of his set-up technique reminded me of our “hidden in plain sight” dialogue.

Rash got inside lives, including mine. And the effect continues to reverberate.

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Read my other essays about Rash’s exhibit Chāi Qiān(拆迁): Inevitable Development here, here, and here.

Notes

1Halfway through “Yangtze Drift” we follow the cable car back across the river from the luxury high rise side of the city toward “old Chongqing” as the film metaphorically turns back upon itself.

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“From the Editor’s Desk”

is written by our Editor: Aaron Mandel

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