By Janina Bach
Ma Yingli's documentary is being filmed in a settlement on the northern fringe of Peking - a residential area already populated by 150,000 people and predicted to grow to 300,000. In addition to some lower six-storey buildings, this fringe settlement has become a city of high-rises - window-studded facades as far as the eye can see, rising columns of glass-enclosed balconies and air-conditioners, bicycles between the buildings, small green spaces and shops. In the early hours of the morning when the summer humidity and heat are still bearable, one can observe retirees in front of their buildings doing gymnastics: Others are working out at the exercise areas where simple steel, brightly-coloured fitness machines are set up. Two older ladies gracefully walk along a balance beam while others dance nearby with red fans.
Before moving to Berlin at the age of twenty, the filmmaker Ma Yingli grew up in a residential settlement of Peking. Her interest in the inhabitants of such settlements arises from their diverse backgrounds. Some of them originate from rural areas and continue following their traditions in the city. Others have been forced out of their traditional flats located downtown and had to move to the suburban settlements. After speaking with residents from various settlements, Ma Yingli decided to focus her documentary on two retired people, their personal stories and the changes they've experienced in their lives. She affectionately talks about the old married couple whose family had lived in downtown Peking for three generations. All was fine until the government approved the demolition of their neighbourhood of traditional, one-storey court houses in order to make room for new residential buildings. The couple was forced to move to the fringe settlement because the indemnity payment they received for their old home wasn't enough to purchase a new flat downtown. For more than two years, the retired couple has been separated from their family and lifelong neighbours in a settlement 25 kilometres away from their former home.
Westerners might quickly guess that this is a story of personal tragedy and condemn the government for sacrificing the close social fabric of traditional residential areas for the anonymity of mass settlements. As drastic as the relocation was for the retired couple, the situation is more complicated than one might think. The filmmaker says that many residents actually hoped the city would demolish the traditional court houses - despite the fact they're historical landmarks and tourists consider them valuable cultural assets. Cramped, lacking private toilets and in desperate need of renovation, the court houses have long lost their charm. By making space for new residential buildings and a commercial district, the government's measures initially rob the inhabitants of their living environment, yet at the same time promise a massive increase in their standard of living.
In her film, Ma Yingli wants to observe the retirees' living situation and listen to their feelings and thoughts. For her, it is crucial to build a basis of trust with her protagonists in order to be allowed to share in their lives and feelings - to "read their soul". In the documentary, the filmmaker tactfully tries to answer questions like: how much of their former life do they still carry within themselves, what can't they get used to and what do they especially miss? She would like to keep her own ideas and thoughts regarding the changes in their lives out of the film in order to avoid leading questions. However, she is quite aware of her subjective point of view. After having lived in Germany for so long, she feels like a "partially external observer" in which her German and Chinese views merge in an ambivalent situation.