Around the Edges
By Frank Falisi

Self-Portrait: 47KM 2020
Dir. Zhang Mengqi, China, no distributor

Self-Portrait: 47KM 2020 screened at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

One advantage of self-portraiture is self-constraint. While the world might be reflected in the painted or photographed eyes, the subject of scrutiny is “I” itself. Here I am, it says. A welcome sense of self-consciousness pervades. Zhang Mengqi’s Self-Portrait 47KM 2020 includes such self—we occasionally see the filmmaker’s face—while also involving myriad other faces, species, and consciousnesses. Gathering a community’s sprawl under the designation “self-portrait,” the film covers a vaster aesthetic space than any one self can define.

The film is the eleventh installment in Zhang’s ongoing series of “self-portraits” and the tenth to be shot in her hometown village of Diaoyutai, in Yindian Town. Located 47 kilometers from Suizhou City, the village first drew Zhang back as a subject in filmmaker Wu Wenguang’s Folk Memory Project, a collection of oral histories from people who lived through the Great Famine. While maintaining a studio in Beijing, Zhang lodged with family through previous stays (and previous films) at Diaoyutai, only establishing her own permanent space in the village just in time for the pandemic of 2020. “So, I lived in the village for the entire year and shot the documentary,” Zhang said in 2023.

Self-Portrait 47KM 2020 is a visual journal of a plague year, an implication that the containers for a life—among them, “year” and “self-portrait” and “documentary”—can only be understood by seeing the myriad people that make up a communal whole. Like The Tsugua Diaries (2022) and New Strains (2023), it is a “COVID film" but only in so much as it is keenly interested in the behavior of humans and their bodies during asterisked time. “This is the way we were,” Thornton Wilder wrote in his time capsule life-play Our Town. Zhang’s film performs a similar survey without the designation of declarative language. Here is the landscape that forms a frame. Here is the movement of people walking into, through, and out of that frame.

It begins with a series of direct-to-camera interviews in which several of the village’s children respond to Zhang’s questions. “What do you know about this pandemic?” she asks. “What does the virus look like?” It’s a feint, a wink at a type of documentary mode she’ll leave almost entirely by the wayside. Self-Portrait contains little direct engagement by the filmmaker when she’s behind the camera. She doesn’t ask questions of her subjects and doesn’t conceive of moments for them to act in. Zhang’s presence in the film is less authored, more tactile: she can be seen onscreen as a villager amongst the villagers, her hand reaching out for a sweet peach offered by a friend or leading movement classes in her Blue House studio, named for Derek Jarman’s 1993 film. The scrutinizing distance between documentary filmmaker and subject is rendered as playful, plain observance Why does the world look like this right now? A boy sits in the bottom left of the frame, the Blue House participants reclining in the early winter background. “Because there is a virus in the air!”

A scene a few minutes later sees older villagers swapping stories of a 96-year-old who recovered from the virus. The subject turns towards cremation. “How much ash can a body make?” someone asks, a childlike question touched with the exhaustion of living. Another such scene shows neighbors in positions familiar to anybody who lived through those early sick days, standing at a road’s intersection trading news, swapping case numbers and worries. Forty-seven kilometers from Suizhou City, itself nearly 170 kilometers from Wuhan, grief hums the air.

As these scenes unfold, Zhang paints the space between the epochal and the experiential, between realizing the historical significance of a given moment (living through a pandemic, say, quarantined in your hometown) and feeling the way a breeze moves through trees. Even with its spikes of anxiety, the vast bulk of Zhang’s footage documents a world at workvillagers till and plow earth, plant and harvest crops, catch centipedes and pick peaches. Handheld camerawork is kept to a minimum, as the film unfurls across long, stationary takes that fade in and out over 24 smaller sections that follow the Chinese solar terms. This structuring element shifts the earlier Self-Portrait films’ focus on history and memory to something like space and time evident in agriculture. Cinematic space-time can be measured in the way a camera scrutinizes a rice plant over the course of a year. Is the pace languid? Can the film feel tedious? Such expansive cinema expands how ‘tedious’ feels—this is how a flower grows. “There was an independent sense of time in the village,” says Zhang. “People scheduled their work based on the changes in the solar terms. They preserved their own concept of time, and their lives were not entirely deprived by the pandemic in 2020.”

A common formulation in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic was that of a natural world that remained beautiful in spite of intensified death and suffering. Zhang’s pastoral ambience refines that observation: the human and natural worlds occupy the same frame. Real-time engagements with death in the foreground of a film frame meet a loll of mountains and spring mist at the horizon line. The off-setting of human suffering against the sublimity of the natural world is nothing novel. But the operation takes on renewed poetic rigor under Zhang’s contemplation while simultaneously resisting the pat documentary distance that might, in other hands, reduce the lives of working people to something inherently romantic. There is no blobby neoliberal handwringing here. There is no polemic. If dignity and joy radiate off the image, it’s because the cinematography is on the people’s level. This phrase is not meant metaphorically. Zhang, a choreographer as well as a documentary filmmaker, is attuned to the specific way the body moves, and her setups foreground their shape. A woman walks bent at the back, moving through a medium-close-up frame, which shows a smile forming around her wrinkles. A man scampers up thin trees with no net or line, hacks at branches even as the tree shudders in the wind. The deep focus doesn’t paint this act as daring or dangerous, but balletic.

In the film’s most movement-laden sequence, Zhang and her camera follow a small girl tramping through the flooded lowlands, marching behind her at a short distance, matching her tromp. It’s another of the film’s long unbroken shots, though this time it’s full of stepping, like the girl. At one point she turns around, her eyes level with the camera, which possesses neither the vantage of pedagogue nor authority of grown-up. A self-portrait simply insists that we look at it, face to face. What else is there to learn from lines around eyes, water beads on rice spikelets, sleeping dogs at sundown? The world isn’t here to teach us, just as nature doesn’t exist to offset the perception of tragedy. A camera doesn’t have to insist, it can also linger, push, touch. “Is this big one sweet?” the filmmaker’s voice says to the proffered peach. “Definitely sweet.”