Chinese whispers

Xiaolu Guo on the voices of a changing country

This year's Doc/Fest in Sheffield, which I caught the tail end of at the weekend, had a great selection of films on show. Of note were Men of the City, Marc Isaac's surprisingly tender portrait of workers in the City of London, and Erik Grandini's Videocracy, which unpicks the poisonous links between celebrity culture and political power in Berlusconi's Italy. There were also arts docs covering, variously, Brian Eno and the making of Tarkovsky's Stalker.

For me, though, the real star was Once Upon a Time Proletarian, by the Chinese novelist and director Xiaolu Guo. It consists of interviews with 12 people drawn from across Chinese society: from an ageing peasant who longs for the days of Mao, to frustrated small-town teenagers, to rich Beijing businessmen. Filmed in spare moments during the shooting of Guo's forthcoming fiction film, She, a Chinese (which I wrote about here), it has a wonderful spontaneity that captures a fleeting moment in China's history.

Below, taken from the Q+A session that followed the screening -- and abridged by me -- Guo explains what her film has to say about modern China.

I wanted to make a group portrait presenting the different social classes in China that have arisen over the last 20 years. China used to be a very simple society: before communism it was made up of peasants or slaves and the emperor system. From the 1950s onwards the whole country changed, but it was still a simple social structure: soldiers, workers and peasants.

Now China is in this period of radical change, where people are losing their identities, losing faith in both traditional and socialist values. There's a new middle class, millionaires, even billionaires. People who used to have a peasant identity, who spent their lives planting rice, now have to work in factories making computer parts.

[The film] shows a kind of collective melancholy. This whole country has lost its old values, and we were never a religious country, so now everyone has to force themselves to be civilised.

I don't trust objective narrative. For me, the truth is subjective and emotional. I don't want to know people's life stories, all I want to know is that moment when they look at the camera. It's very powerful but it's over so quickly.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge