By Bruno Sorrentino
The inside story from the field with Bruno Sorrentino, director of “The People’s Court”. Sorrentino discusses what inspired him about the project, the obstacles the crew faced during the shoot, and his personal impressions of the state of the Chinese legal system.
By Maggie Still, Xanadu Productions
We started research for The People’s Court in 2004, and it took over two years to finally secure permission for filming. It’s never easy to gain access to government institutions in China, and the courts proved harder than most. No Western documentary crew had been allowed to film inside a Chinese courtroom before. Our application went up the judicial ranks, all the way to the Supreme Court of China and by late 2006, we could finally plan our shoot.
We focused on Chengdu, the urban capital of Sichuan Province in Western China. To provide a contrast with the city courts that we filmed, we also travelled to rural Gongxian county, some 300 miles away. We had heard of a new government initiative: mobile courts. Groups of judges travel to far-flung villages in order to resolve civil disputes and inform people about their legal rights. The cases are often small, but as the judges told us, if they can solve a petty case before it flares up into something more serious, then they are satisfied. In a typical rural village families have lived together for generations. Their disputes may seem petty to us, but they impacted long-standing relationships.
After one trip into the countryside, an incident took place which alarmed us at the time, but was also ironic given the subject of our film. While travelling on a minibus, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant on the side of the highway. We had two representatives from the foreign affairs office who were responsible for us. These “minders” kept a check on what we were filming, but it was also part of their job to keep us safe in case we encountered any problems.
Having found a table in the almost empty restaurant, one of the minders, “Lester” (his chosen English name), ordered us some fish. The waitresses assured us that it was something of a speciality of the area – and was all they had anyway.
The custom in China is for the restaurant to tell you the weight of the fish and the price per pound so the customer can decide if the price is right. On this occasion they didn’t tell us anything. When Lester returned and told us the size of the fish and the price, we realized that they were – to put it mildly – trying to take advantage of us. The fish was going to cost 400 yuan (about $52), a huge amount of money even though it was an enormous fish. Even by Chinese standards, the fish was far too big for five people. We announced that we had changed our minds and would be leaving.
We returned to the minibus and were just about to take off, when one of the waitresses followed us onto the bus and refused to move until we had paid for the fish. She said that they had started to cook it, and we had ordered it, so we should pay for it. Being a producer (and therefore always concerned about time), I suggested the easy way out: we would pay something to the restaurant for “inconvenience caused” and hope that she would leave our bus! She refused, wouldn’t move, and sat on one of the steps, at which point another waitress arrived so we now had two of them staging a “sit in”.
Negotiations began but it made no difference. Our Chinese Assistant Producer Ning tried to move one of the waitresses from the bus, but she attacked him with her nails and made his face bleed. I knew that people from Sichuan province were very hot-tempered – and traditionally form a high percentage of China’s fighting forces – but I didn’t expect to see this in action! We separated the two of them and got Ning to the back of the bus.
Then events took a turn for the worse. Two men came onto the bus to protect the waitresses. Our junior translator, Adam, together with Lester, tried to calm the situation, and our other minder called the police. Bruno said later that he did think of turning on the camera, but he didn’t know if they had knives, and so he thought better of it! Things gradually calmed down when they learned the police were coming. The police duly arrived and in an extremely professional manner separated the parties and heard everyone’s version of the events. Approximately 2 hours later – and by this time of course we were very hungry as we still hadn’t had any lunch – everything was resolved. A “mediated” settlement was reached; ironic given that we had been filming mediation in the court only the previous day. The mediation concluded that we pay half of the amount requested by the restaurant, and that we keep the fish! Face was saved. This very large fish travelled with us back to Chengdu and our driver took it home.
Given some stories we had heard about the police, the experience was strangely reassuring. But that’s today’s China: contradictory. Without a doubt, there is terrible police brutality and court corruption. But for every bad example you also find a good example. No one can measure the extent of corruption in China, but we certainly met many ordinary decent members of Chinese society. And in the end, that’s where China’s hope for the future lies.
18th June, 2007