IDFA 2018: Trapped in the City
23 November 2018
David Verbeek's short documentary Trapped in The City of a Thousand Mountains, recipient of Netherlands Film Fund postproduction support, explores China's surveillance culture through the prism of the smouldering rap scene in the city of Chongqing in the southwest of the country.
A major port on the Yangtze River, Chongqing is one of the country's fastest growing cities, with a rich historical and cultural heritage, especially in the realm of poetry. But its younger inhabitants have little connection with the rural roots and poetic traditions of their ancestors.
Verbeek, who is best known as a fiction feature director with recent credits including An Impossibly Small Object and Full Contact , says he was drawn to the city on a number of levels. "I had been hearing for years and years about Chongqing. While places like Shanghai, and to some extent Beijing and Guangzhou, have become hubs for expats, Chongqing is still relatively undiscovered. It's known as the Chinese metropolis for the Chinese," explains the filmmaker, who divides his time between the Netherlands and Asia.
"I'd gotten all sorts of reports that it had been modernising at an incredible pace, with buildings shooting up into the sky. I'm interested in what that means for society, what it does to people and the generational gap. These are themes I've explored in a lot of my films."
Beyond his curiosity about the city, the key draw for Verbeek was the vibrant Hip Hop scene which has flourished there in recent years but has been partially forced underground following a crackdown by the authorities on the popular musical format, which has seen artists pressured out of the business, and 120 popular rap tracks banned.
"Chongqing is one of the hubs for Chinese rap,' says Verbeek. "It has a very specific sound to it because the local dialect is very feisty. It sounds very aggressive. People are quite flamboyant in this region. It's a mountainous city and it gets very hot in the summer. Everything in the city is hot. People are hottempered and they eat extraordinarily spicy food. They have a local hot-pot which is one of the spiciest in the world."
The film takes the spectator deep into the city's underground Hip Hop scene, through interviews with local artists such as Lil Ya, Master Da and Ghostism alongside footage of impromptu living room rap meetings, video shoots and secret concerts.
Verbeek explains, however, that he was not interested in the Hip Hop scene in itself but rather as a vehicle to explore state censorship and surveillance in China. It is an interest that grew out of his own experiences while trying to film in the country. "I'm very interested in state control and in cinematically expressing what this kind of state control does and how it functions," he says. "You've got this group of young people, trying to find their identity and then being stopped in a way - that was what drew me to Chongqing."
One of the big issues, the film suggests, is that the authorities blur the lines so that no-one is ever quite sure what is or is not permissible within the law. Many of the interviewees say this results in selfcensorship. "It was difficult to get a clear answer. I couldn't just go to government officials and ask them if Hip Hop was legal or not legal so I had to find out from the people on the receiving end of this new policy," says Verbeek.
"Everybody had a different story about what was the deal. It's not like when you walk around with tattoos and sing a bit of Hip Hop you suddenly get arrested. It depends on who you listen to or whether Hip Hop is outlawed or not. For a long time, I wanted to call the documentary MC, Nobody Knows ." Melanie Goodfellow
SEE NL Magazine #33 November 2018 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.