China's first vertical documentary weaves snippets of ordinary people's lives hits the cinema
By Li Qing  ·  2024-01-29  ·   Source: NO.5 FEBRUARY 1, 2024
A poster of This Is Life, China's first vertical documentary film offering a glimpse into ordinary people's lives (COURTESY PHOTO)

On January 23, 300 workers on construction sites in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, were treated to a free screening of This Is Life, a documentary released 10 days before.

The documentary, regarded as a special New Year's film, focuses on ordinary life. It weaves together nearly 900 videos from the short-video app Kuaishou, produced by 509 people recording their lives working in factories, on construction sites, in the fields, or on highways and waterways.

The film begins by detailing people's daily life, including their clothing, food, living quarters, and then their journeys home from their workplaces to their hometowns. In the last episode, people reunite with their families to celebrate the Spring Festival.

"It resonated with me to see workers growing vegetables or catching fish at construction sites, because my colleagues and I once did the same things," Zhang Deyi, a migrant worker from Anhui Province in east China, said. The 57-year-old man is a cleaner at the construction site of a subway and has lived in Ningbo for many years.

The film stands out not only because it maintains the authentic flavor of ordinary people's lives by putting together their real-life footage, but also because it is the first documentary in China to be shot vertically. The innovative method of storytelling makes it possible to split the horizontal screen into five vertical sections and switches between them for different visual effects.

The film's director Sun Hong said the documentary yields a glimpse into details of ordinary people's lives, which are often overlooked, and she hopes the film will preserve these moments in this rapidly changing era. 

Speak for yourself 

Is it necessary for audiences to sit down in cinemas to "browse a short-video app" when they could have done so more comfortably at home?

The idea of creating a documentary related to short videos came to Sun in 2019, while she was studying for a doctorate in communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. At that time, the influence of short videos on Chinese society was increasing and more people were able to capture life's fleeting moments anywhere and anytime. With so much real-life footage available, why don't we try making a documentary out of short videos, Sun wondered.

Life in a Day, a crowd-sourced documentary unveiled in 2011, also inspired the director. It comprises a series of video clips selected from 80,000 snippets submitted to YouTube to show respective occurrences around the world on a single day.

Different from its pioneer, This Is Life focuses on blue-collar groups. Its clips were selected from content generated and shared by nearly 600 million users on Kuaishou and then assembled into a film.

Traditionally, the first step of shooting a documentary is field research, sometimes involving exploring and experiencing life in remote areas. In contrast, Sun and her colleagues watched short videos every day to select materials for the documentary. There were no fixed criteria, and they just shared their favorite ones in their group chat and explained why the clips touched them.

"Instead of observing life directly and capturing necessary shots with a camera, we explore through short videos," Sun said, referring to this method as "cloud research." After one year, the team had watched more than 50,000 videos and selected 887 clips.

This helps to avoid a drawback in traditional documentary making. "When the documentary team is present as observers and recorders, many individuals don't show their emotions naturally due to the interference of the cameras," Sun said.

Sun was impressed by a skilled female crane operator who ascended tall buildings to work in the clouds. Besides her job and three meals a day, she also captures the best sea of clouds in the city on camera as she has the best observation spot. 

"In the video, I see a different world, one that will be new to many viewers. This made me realize that we have ignored blue-collar employees, and their view of the world. I hope through the documentary, viewers will take an interest in their stories and care more about them," she said.

Dai Jinhua, a professor from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University and a film researcher, described This Is Life as a micro-miracle that allows people to pay attention to the blue-collar labor force.

"Moreover, their lives full of joy—playing, laughing, dancing—are portrayed so vividly and authentically that it stands out in the current landscape of film and television works," Dai said.

Touching moments 

In one clip, a grandmother "confiscates" younger family members' mobile phones and puts them in a basin before their Spring Festival reunion dinner so that no family member will be distracted.

In another, truck driver Yang Hongbao and his wife, both from Hebei Province in north China, transport goods to Lhasa in Xizang Autonomous Region. During this journey of over 3,500 km, they encounter thieves, face complex road conditions and deal with altitude sickness, as well as cook delicious food with limited equipment.

Taking "ingredients" from people of different ages, professions and locations and seamlessly combining them to whip up a "delicious dish" for the audience was also a challenge for the team.

To maximize the amount of content they could include in the documentary, the production team chose to show multiple vertical screens at the same time. This unconventional montage technique can present five different time and space dimensions simultaneously without flooding the audience with information. However, only one section is used when the content contributes directly to the storyline.

"Although it's tiring for the audience to watch multiple scenes at the same time, there is a logic between them," Sun said.

For example, in some scenes the screens focus on the different stages of life (childhood, youth, middle age and old age), effectively portraying an individual's journey through life. Another example is in the construction segment, where one screen depicts a tall building being erected, while another shows the demolition of an old structure—symbolizing a city's development and renewal.

Also, the funny, witty and humorous aspects of the short videos have been retained, with some bundles of amusing videos helping to keep viewers engaged with the film's content.

"Now that every mobile phone user can be a creator, more groups can gain mainstream visibility," Sun said. "But the downside is that these snippets may lack depth and get trapped in the information cocoon [of social media]."

This is why people need documentaries if they still value the world beyond the control of algorithms, she continued, adding documentaries can capture numerous fleeting moments and emotions worth remembering.

(Printed edition title: Life Montages) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

Comments to 

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Hoy   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency
China Daily   |   CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860