Why people should see Karamay 

Our friend Robert Koehler, film critic at Variety, was the first to recommend that we screen the Chinese film Karamay. Keep reading to find out why he thinks it’s "probably the most important and emotionally powerful non-fiction film of recent years."

On December 8, 1994, a devastating fire swept through the civic auditorium in the Chinese big oil city of Karamay, killing 323 and injuring over 130 victims, almost all of them between ages 6 and 14.

The basic, numeric facts of the tragedy are horrible enough, and echo innumerable catastrophes that have regularly plagued China during its decade-long race to status as one of the world’s powerful nation-states. But most of these disasters have been industrial; the Karamay disaster killed innocent school children performing for an audience of regional Communist Party officials, virtually all of whom managed to escape the inferno before the children, even as several alert teachers were able to corral some students out of the building.

On such stuff is Xu Xin’s Karamay built, and from which it emerges as probably the most important and emotionally powerful non-fiction film of recent years. Any future book on documentary film history will have to mark a place of honor for Xu’s work, which registers degrees of outrage (both political and personal) and genuine pathos that makes it an act of profound bravery within the context of the pressures placed by authorities on independent filmmakers like Xu.

Nothing underlines this bravery more than the periodic inclusion of home video shot by several witnesses to the disaster, including some of the most shocking imagery in a non-fiction film since Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard. Even in the field of exceptional work by these non-fiction filmmakers, from Wang Bing to Yu Guangyi, Xu’s fourth film is an astonishing achievement on every level.

Recalling the sustained, fixed-camera recording of political prisoner Fengming in Wang’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, Xu positions his camera in front of the still-grieving parents and captures their outrage at the insistent pattern of being ignored and alienated by city and regional officials, which the viewer begins to sense is the emotional engine that keeps them alive. The gallery of faces, most of whom remain so long on screen during the 371-minute long film that they become familiar, confirms that the Karamay tragedy casts a long shadow that questions the validity of the Chinese political class itself.

Robert Koehler

Karamay will be screened as part of the Horizons section at this year’s festival. Details here.