Theatrical Art and the Difficulty of Living

in 56th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Jean-Max Méjean

The DOK Leipzig film Festival began with an almost Shakespearean storm, and ended, at least for the three members of the FIPRESCI jury, with a sort of tribute to Ariane Mnouchkine’s Molière. In deciding to award our prize to A Folk Troupe, by Chinese filmmaker Zhao Gang, the FIPRESCI jury not only recognized its high artistic quality, but also the fact that this film — which is about the life of a company — speaks of theatrical art and the difficulty of living.

In spring 2012, a folk Sichuan Opera troupe of eleven performers arrives at the outskirts of Chengdu City in China. Zhao Li, smart and capable, has led the troupe for many years. They put on three hours of traditional performance in a rented shed. Sixteen-year-old Dandan, who is beautiful and talented, is the most prominent actress in the troupe. She has a childhood background in acting as her family travelled around as performers in traditional opera. Dandan has been dreaming of becoming a star. However, with the age of Sichuan opera declining, it is now clear that this opera style now attracts only old people and has become a sort of museum practice. We see the actors having great difficulty in living and feeding themselves. Furthermore, the administration does not really help the troupe and the audience is composed exclusively of old and poor people. We must see this beautiful film as a metaphor for a China between tradition (for instance: Sichuan Opera, respect for elders, and Buddhism — even though the last is used more commercially than artistically or religiously by the comedians) and modernity (video games, mobile phones, women’s liberation).

This is a film that is beautiful, moving, and violent by turns, and presents a new image of China while maintaining the fascination for its culture and art. By intervening with (or manipulating?) the cast, the director and his team were able to form a new company. This idea of a troupe as appreciated by Shakespeare as well as by Molière is certainly the most productive ferment of living creation and film, as well as the music hall and theatre.

For all these reasons, A Folk Troupe is an important film that should be shown in schools that teach theatre, circus, or cinema. It was the work of Ariane Mnouchkine, and now it is the role of Zhao Gang, who shed light on it by choosing not fiction, but documentary, which is even more difficult.

The artist’s life is not as romantic as we sometimes think. Describing it in very impressionistic realism, the film allows us to live with these artists for the duration of the film, and think about them a long time after. As phrased so well by Cornelia Klauss on the DOK Leipzig festival site: “The contrast with the colourful productions on stage, whose titles, like In the Land of Plenty, hold magnificent promises, couldn’t be bigger. The audience may just about be able to afford this kind of travelling opera, but it’s an unmistakeable swan song. Another piece of cultural history about to get lost.”

Edited by Carmen Gray