Film Review: Petition

Sad and sobering account of human-rights violations in modern-day China.

Petition is a stark document about a handful of Chinese people who are bravely but futilely trying to protest their government’s harsh treatment of their families. Director Zhao Liang lets his subjects—and his images—make the point that major reforms are badly needed in his home country. The question remains whether his film will find an audience that truly cares.

Most of Petition focuses on a few case histories that Zhao filmed over a period of 12 years (starting in the mid-1990s), but they come to represent a larger number of heroic individuals who have been valiantly fighting against the Chinese government’s bureaucracy in a “petition” system that almost never works. Whether they are attempting to clear or correct a record or register a grievance, these provincial citizens rarely get satisfaction and spend months or even years of their lives ostracized in Beijing’s squatty “Petition Village” in order to make their case.

Petition isn’t the first film to illustrate injustices in modern China (see China Blue for its powerful look at the world of sweatshops), nor is it the first Chinese film to be shot secretly and smuggled out of the country. But Zhao Liang does a thorough and credible job as both filmmaker and activist. Petition is long (at over two hours) but rarely dull, as we become increasingly involved in such stories as a woman and her daughter trying to clear their name against charges the mother killed her husband.

Like Frederick Wiseman, Zhao finds the Kafkaesque absurdity of institutions. Unlike Wiseman’s “purer” cinéma-vérité approach, we hear the director ask questions (and even give advice) from behind the camera. By necessity, Zhao films the scenes at the Petition office surreptitiously—and the hidden camera records some physically brutal treatment of the petitioners by the police and guards. The occasional intertitles are helpful, though it becomes difficult to figure out whether conditions are getting better or worse since the timeline is not explicit.

In any case, Petition has at least as much value as a report from Human Rights Watch or a similar organization. Let’s hope it makes a difference where it matters.