Hanwen Zhang '19

The First Line of China

a thesis by Hanwen Zhang


The First Line of China is a 45-min essayistic documentary in first-person narrative, which presents and examines the current status of an isolated industrial town in Northeast China, as well as my relationship with it since it’s my birthplace. The town was constructed simultaneously with a local state-owned cement factory to feed and host the workers who migrated here. I consider this factory-town model as a combining result of the urban planning scheme and the radical industrialization of China in the 1980s, while the communal living experience serves as a bearer of both collective memory and individual sentiments.

During the shooting process, I repeatedly heard this town described as “The First Line of China” and became curious about its provenance. Throughout the film, viewers are led tracing this clue to reveal a half-buried story and reflecting on other related topics, such as the relationship between space, ideology, memory, and images; my nostalgia for the town as an imaginary hometown or a utopia; the ideological and cultural transformations of China derived from its economic reform, etcetera.

The film was fabricated by a wide range of materials, either made or found, containing still images, video, sound, music, texts, etc. By producing this film, I aimed to understand, practice and furthermore challenge the “horizontal montage”, as André Bazin described Chris Marker’s film in 1958, noting that Marker’s films are not organized according to images or narrative but according to thoughts. This was also the first time when people tried to anchor “essay film” as a genre. In my film, images are accompanied by text describing or commenting both inside and outside of the images.

There are three threads in the film: me visiting different places recalling and commenting memory from the past; the interviews I did with different people, including my parents, their colleague, and so on; several random workers repairing a broken wall in the town

These three threads metaphorically represent and comment on each other. For example, the result of the wall repairing is neither making it look the same as before nor keeping the trace of time, but merely creating a cement patch on it. Meanwhile, considering my memory of this place used to be totally fragmented and vague, returning home and producing the film was not meant either to retrieve the lost memory or to restore living in the past, but to find the gap between the past and present, and to create a new kind of hybrid memory of this place, my family, and myself.

Nowadays, people are moving around more frequently and remotely than ever in history. Nostalgia has become a shared experience vaguely connected with the modern experience of time, history, and identity. Svetlana Boym distinguished two types of nostalgia: the restorative and the reflective. The former one stressed the reconstruction of lost home, while the latter one concentrates on the longing for home and the thinking of nostalgia itself. I believe that my nostalgia is closer to the reflective one.

My nostalgia, briefly speaking, could be basically but not sufficiently referred to as mixed nostalgia towards my childhood, collectivism, and an imaginary utopia, which originates from the transformation of Chinese society in the past 30 years. When Svetozar Pejovich discussed the transformation of eastern Europe at the end of last century, he considered it more as a cultural transformation rather than an economic or technological one, which means that every individual would have to understand the result of the overall changing of ideology, lifestyle and value system. In my situation, when I began to build up my value system, socialism and collectivism was no longer the dominant ideology. Individualism, modern family life, Hollywood films, and the Internet were the social norms. This Post-90s generation like me could hardly be influenced by the old fashioned, straightforward political propaganda. However, it is weird that since I’ve experienced the age of collectivism, but maybe not enough to experience the downside of it, I can have an antagonistic intellectual position, but I don’t have an antagonistic feeling towards it. In some ways, it could even provide the space for me when I’m disappointed by the modern lifestyle. Though the impossibility of returning to the wonderland contributes to the construction of this utopia and provide the escaping point as well, it can’t stop me from falling into and wandering in the nostalgic rabbit hole.


Haunted by this nostalgia, I went back to this place, with a camera, and recorded everything: what remains in my memory vibrantly or vaguely, what could activate my deep memory, what could interest me even though it’s entirely out of my mind. I’m fascinated by the fact that something remains the same as my memory, such as the landscape of the whole town, all the images of buildings; meanwhile, I can see the traces of their changes in detail. By shooting images, a new subtle connection was established between my memory and the images I produced. Some footage could function as the representation of my memory, or as the alternative. I can say that by making images, some of my memories of this place became renovated while they also faded.

Furthermore, my memory and feeling about this place have been changing all the time with the process of the production of the film. I get this feeling that before the editing process, all the footage functioned exactly like childhood memories—fragmented, related to each other, some are quite vibrant, some are forgettable. By working on the whole database and trying to structure it up, the situation also changed, in the same way that memory gets changed. I can’t stop to think about what is the real purpose of my return home, my shooting and my editing. To remember, or to forget?