“I’m sure we’ll survive the hard times, we welcome the people’s victory,” says Lin, the de facto protagonist of investigative journalist-turned-filmmaker Jill Li’s excellent, longitudinal documentary Lost Course, somewhere near the start of the six-year-long saga that the film doggedly depicts. As the eldest and most articulate individual in the group of activists, Lin was a central figure in the Wukan Protests, a spontaneous uprising in a small fishing village situated in China’s Guangdong Province that occurred in response to the discovery that the area’s local officials had been secretly and illegally selling off the village’s communal land. After an initial struggle in September 2011 (referred to as the “9.21 incident”) triggered a mass protest in which four villagers were later arrested (with one, Bo, dying in police custody), the whole of Wukan arose in anger, instigating a committed period of collective petitioning and a general strike that continued through November of the same year. The initial results of this early outrage were extraordinary. In Li’s ground-level footage, villagers are seen marching en masse, shouting in unison: “Down with corrupt officials! Give us back our land!” In December, a special working group was dispatched to the village to try to resolve the commotion and, by February 2012, the village’s party officials had been ousted. Elections for a new citizen-led committee were organized, with Lin voted as the leader of a group containing many of his fellow protestors. The world was looking towards Wukan. What would happen now that the people had seemingly been granted a chance to self-govern?
Split into two sections, Lost Course first outlines the town’s early protests and election efforts, before cataloguing the struggles of the elected protestors to adjust to the bureaucratic procedures of local governance and continual pressure from both a state threatened by their displays of autonomy and a public demanding the rapid return of the stolen land. Swift progress gives way to the sluggishness of process, and as the events unfold, a key question emerges: are these new officials any different from the old ones, and if they are, can anything even be achieved within such a constricting system? For a long while, this remains compellingly unclear, and Li, despite her proximity to (and obvious affinity for) the protestors, continues to scrutinize them and keeps the viewer guessing as to their intentions (and their integrity). In both sections, Li films intensely and obsessively, covering the initial struggles up close, before returning regularly to the town to track the activities of the protestors-turned-officiators over time and hear from other townspeople directly about what they make of the situation unfolding. Recognized recently with a Best Documentary award at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards, Lost Course screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November after premiering at the Vancouver International Film Festival, having been reworked into its current three-hour-long form from an initial shorter cut that Li had produced in 2016. Realizing this was a story that needed more space to unfurl, Li reorganized the film into the character-driven arc that it now follows: something resembling a documentary-cum-ensemble drama. Making fine use of its own duration, Lost Course concentrates most of its time on this core group of activists and the ever-developing interpersonal dynamics between them, showing how the work of enacting change ends up changing them.
Every individual is affected by this journey they undertake together, facing the prospect of compromise and corruption on the one side, and the real, increasingly routine-seeming risk of losing their lives or livelihoods on the other. Li’s characterization of each of her subjects is nuanced, giving each activist space and screen-time through which to develop into something believably complex and often contradictory. Bold, hot-blooded activists become wisened, weary bureaucrats; brave men turn fearful. It is rarely clear where any of the activists’ true loyalties lie, or why they may be acting in the ways that they do. One thing is clear, though: none of them really want to be where they’ve ended up. Electoral politics is not a calling but the inevitable result of their initial commitment, and they, as much as anyone, are keenly aware of the corrupting influences their positions involve. Bo’s daughter Wan enters the election but finds herself unable to operate within a sphere which intensifies her grief. Xing, one of the youngest activists, can’t decide whether he wants to be an official, an artist, neither, or both. Hong, Chao, and Cheng, who were all arrested in the first protest, find that work in the committee office is no less risky than action in the streets, nor any easier or more gratifying. Lin experiences the worst of it. Put up on a pedestal, he is overworked and under-supported, finding himself treated with suspicion and resentment from the public and his colleagues and former friends. State pressures increase, and as they fail to deliver on promises made during their election campaigns, the village turns on them too. Those who, in 2011, had been able to achieve so much in such a short space of time find themselves, by 2016, stunted, exhausted, and outcast, doomed to repeat the failures of the past. Five years into this experiment in semi-autonomy, the land issue has not progressed, and the villagers are no less aggrieved. The state’s stranglehold has been reasserted, and nearly all of the protestors, Lin included, face prison sentences. Wukan’s promise, as a site of irregularity and possibility, has all but dissipated.
Li ends her film on a dour note, with one of the film’s final scenes being its bleakest. Lin talks quietly to the filmmaker in a corner of the office building, showing a level of transparency and trust that is typical in this most intimate of films—something you can only get from such a lengthy commitment to embedded filmmaking, something that is earned rather than granted. “Now I finally understand why Chinese emperors referred to themselves as ‘the lonely one,’” he says, siloed from his colleagues and all but defeated. “I’m a mere village official and I have no one to talk to … I brought this on myself,” he concludes, “I could have had a good life.” Comparing this crestfallen man to the triumphant one seen in the same spot on the eve of his election demonstrates the tremendous amount of ground covered by a film that is at once deeply dispiriting and yet not at all defeatist. Something happened in Wukan, and even if it was ultimately nullified, a film now exists that dutifully records the reality of what went on there. In that earlier scene, Lin outlines the symbolic significance of what the protestors had achieved with the legitimacy of a local electoral success. “The village’s demands are legitimate and lawful,” he says to the camera, brandishing an official document saying as such. It seems a short, insignificant statement, but this is a major admission coming from an authoritarian state. “The people’s demands are lawful,” he says once more, reading the paper aloud and breaking into something resembling a grin. “The people’s demands are lawful.”