Monday, January 16, 2006

The Good Shots

I fell asleep while waiting for the cops to come. I had planned to visit a family church in Hebei province over the weekend. On Thursday, however, I heard that on the previous Sunday, several cops harassed the family church in Beijing that I’ve been following. They visited the church after most of the congregation were gone, and copied down the ID card information of the person in charge. Nobody could be sure whether the cops were targeting the church itself or they were simply following a couple of the prominent dissidents who went to the church. Nobody could be sure either whether they would be back the following weekend, because they didn’t leave any clear warning.

I decided to wait and see, in that underground church set in a two bedroom apartment 20 floors above ground.

After the opening prayers and hymn singing, the preacher addressed the congregation of about 20 crammed in the small living room. He asked everyone to help look for a new apartment for the church, as the current landlord refused to renew the lease, perhaps under police pressure. He stressed that the church would continue to welcome everyone, including those attracting undesirable government attention. Then he went on to read and explain the Bible. After listening to it for 10 minutes, I went to the next room and fell asleep on the sofa.

I woke up 20 minutes later, after dreaming myself heroically going to jail for doing the documentary. I grabbed my camera and headed towards the living room. Just as I was wondering how long the preaching would continue, a loud knock hit the door from the outside.

Everyone turned to look at the door. Usually when a believer comes, a buzz from the security intercom downstairs would precede the door knock. The air froze. I turned on my camera.

The door was opened. In came two cops in uniforms and two men in plainclothes. The cop in the front started in a mild manner, “one of your neighbor complained to the local police station that you are causing disturbance here.”

Everyone considered that a lame excuse. A couple of believers volunteered to call the Environmental Agency. “They can come and measure the noise level of our singing and praying. In no way could we be disturbing our neighbors. Plus,” they exclaimed, “all of our neighbors know we are having a church service here. Why would they call the cops instead of directly talking to us?”

The cop didn’t know how to respond. The man in the brown coat stepped forward, “don’t you know that having a church gathering is illegal?” That statement immediately draw heated response from the believers. In the audiences sat a prominent human rights lawyer and a Ph.D. student in law at the famous Peking University. China’s constitution guarantees religion rights, they said.

“I know you guys would be saying that, so I brought this.” The man in brown coat waved a booklet with the national insignia on the cover. “This is the regulations on religious activities in China. What you cited is just one line in the Constitution. This regulation fully explains what’s allowed by that line. Did you guys register with the local police as a religious group?”

The law student’s agitation went up a notch. We are getting petitions for the national congress to review the constitutionality of these laws, he said with his fist held tight. Another chimed in that the congregation were not a religious organization, but rather a casual gathering, thus not subject to the government regulation.

I kept my camera rolling the whole time, about 2 meters away from the center of actions, in a state of surreal daze. Various thoughts bubbled up in my heads like those in the VH1 Pop-up Videos:

-Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m filming the cops suppressing the family church, in real time!
-Oh shit, the cops seem way too reasonable and articulate. And calmer than the believers! I need more viciousness. Please!
-What should I do now shot-wise? I have zoomed in and out, panned left and right. What else can I do to make the final viewing more dramatic???
-Why are they letting me continue filming? Why? This is unreal!!!

I stood there as if watching myself filming a legal debate in front of a Supreme Court that China doesn’t have. I felt almost sorry for the brown-coat man who’s not equipped to argue with the legal scholars. “I’m not here to expel the group. I just want to warn you about the illegality of gathering here,” he proclaimed with an aloofness which could be interpreted as a threat or mere bureaucratic perfunctoriness. No, the group countered – it’s you who’d barged into a private premise illegally with no warrant or permit.

He then asked to see everyone’s ID. The group responded no again – China’s law stipulates that the citizens be required to show their IDs only to those with court warrant.

The brown-coat man’s cool peeled off, layer by layer, with each argument he lost. He checked around for a target. Then he saw me.

“What are you filming?” he yelled, “you are invading my image rights.”

“Hey, I’m doing a private video on this church. You came into this picture yourself.” I answered half-heartedly. As a huge fan of the rule of law and the courtroom dramas in the US Supreme Court, I wondered if indeed I was invading on his image rights.

“Turn it off, damn it.” With that he took hold of my camera, “I want you to erase the part with me in it.”

I hold on to my camera. Is that a reasonable request? But those are my good shots! The group showered him again with more legal enlightenment – as a public employee working for the government, cops don’t have image rights.

I could see the frustration boiling in the brown-coat man. He found his outlet on me, the only legal weakness in this unfortunate expedition of his. He dragged me and my camera into the room next door, where I had been napping 10 minutes earlier. “Give me the damn tape!” He screamed.

I fought to keep my hands on my camera. Is this really happening? What is this? Am I heroically fighting with a vicious cop? Or should I observe the law to give him the tape which he may truly have rights to? Would it be ethical to show footage of him even if I ended up keeping the footage? Why didn’t any of the books on indie filmmaking discuss the ethical issues around dealing with cops? What does the law say? Oh how I wish China could have a real Supreme Court to clarify issues like the proper ethical ways of dealing with a cop. Oh my god, I’m going to lose my good shots! How can I keep it?! How can I?!

Garbage thoughts kept on popping up in my brain, making me dumb and confused. I kept saying no to him, without even knowing no to what.

The brown-coat man finally yanked the camera out of my hands. “Give me the tape!” He fumbled with the camera but couldn’t figure out how to open up the tape deck, thanks to Sony’s ingenious design. He swung the camera around in utter frustration. My expensive shot-gun mic was dangling below the camera, still attached via a cable. He kept on twisting and banging the camera to get out the tape. “Damn it!” He stared at me with a piercing anger, “I warn you. Don’t cross us!”

My out-of-body legal rumination suddenly evaporated. At that brief moment, I stopped seeing the complexity of modern China, and quit playing with the Constitutionality issue of religion rights. I could no longer sympathize with him because he’s merely a puppet in this insecure system of political and cultural ideologues. I looked into his eyes and saw a trace of evil glinting over his rage. Not the evil of the communists, of the oppressors, or of Satan; but a hatred, out of deep frustrations, and a desire to destroy, both of which seem to have deep root in our culture, and in the current political system with no reliable legal recourse, are unhindered by anything except for a consciousness that nevertheless could be easily crossed to reveal the evil in all of us.

“Give me the fucking tape, or there goes your expensive camera.” He held the camera high. I was transfixed by the sight of a man sent on a mission to hinder and possibly destroy, holding my camera with all my good shots in it. He was determined to accomplished something before calling it quits, and there’d be no legal recourse or appeal to whatever ended up happening.

Between losing my good shots and losing my camera plus the good shots, I chose the former.

I gave him the tape. They left. I stood in the room kicking myself – I should’ve been more strategic! I should’ve switched tapes every 5 minutes! I shouldn’t have acted so greedily as I’m investing in the stock market! The rule does apply everywhere – what sounded too good to be true probably is!

When I went back to the living room with my camera and a new tape, the cops were gone. The preacher was leading another prayer. He expressed great joy that none of the congregation ran away for fear of the cops. He told the group that they would continue to gather even though the cops would surely come back to harass them again.

They prayed.

I kept filming.

They prayed for God’s guidance on overcoming the obstacles. They prayed for the many persecuted in the countryside for their beliefs. They prayed for the cops. Many cried.

I kept filming.

Still a devout atheist, I felt my nose itchy to sniffle. I didn’t know whether it was from mere exhaustion or from witnessing the real human drama right in front of my eyes, in real time.

I held back the urge to sniffle and kept filming.


rachel said...

are you a chinese citizen? i mean technically they can't do anyhing too horrible to you if you aren't... right?

Beijing Loafer said...

Technically citizens of any country are subject to Chinese laws once they are in China. But in real life, citizens from other countries, especially those visibally looking different from Chinese, would not be pursued as hard for the same "crime".

I still hold Chinese passport...

Anonymous said...

Interesting story. I know that the Chinese law system is more complex than others, but what are actually the rights of photographers / video takers in China?

What is allowed? What not?
Are there any English links about this topic?

I thought, that when you're shooting more often for these kind of events / about these topics, you maybe are already prepared...

PS: Sorry for posting anonymous, but in the internet it's too easy to find out the true name, and that's sometimes not too good on certain topics...

Beijing Loafer said...

Oh no worries. I deny any association to certain names out there who could be associated with me. :)

Not sure about the laws in China. Lots of filmmakers go the guerilla route with no clear strategies of dealing with the IP rights. I've heard award-winning films started researching to acquire rights way after distribution had already started.

Oh well, chaos sometimes has its merit. Until one gets big, of course.

Other Lisa said...

Wow, what a story.

In the US I think you would be protected under the cover of shooting a newsworthy event. You had permission to shoot the church, and then the police came and made news out of it.

Anonymous said...

Haha... good reply :)

BTW: A question that always nagged me: I've read quite a lot of your entries, as they certainly are more interesting than the usual "I'm in China!!!"-BLOG with entries such as "Traffic" or "I ate pig's feet today!".

But I wonder... some or most of your topics are discussing issues that others might not to be as easy to publish as things like music or food. E.g. Gay / Lesbian, Police / Church, Maggie's Bar (I hate that place), ...

Don't you run into any problems when writing about this? Or are you a person living with ten hidden identities always in fear of being caught by Chinese Secret Service?

california_dreamer said...

this is not you, is it?

Beijing Loafer said...

Yeah, I guess it's me. But I wasn't beaten. Oh well, traveling words have their own life of evolution.

Regarding censorship - call me naive, but I don't think the police would bother any one who's not famous or about to attract some kind of attention. In addition, writing in English has very limited impact in what's happening in China, regardless whether I write in Beijing or New York.

So, the day the secret police comes to knock on my doors, I know I've got somewhere in my wretched life which otherwise would remained clouded by existential crises. :)

Albatross said...

... be careful man, I hope to see your name in newspaper under the Art or Movie categories, not the Politics or Obituaries categories ...

Ken (The Runcible) said...

Damn, what a shame... there's nothing more frustrating than missing good shots, let alone losing it. But then, being put in jail tops that.

I was surprised it took the cops so long to notice you. I'd think the first thing they do is taking care of the camera man. I too was harrassed when photographing in a public market last year, no cops involved but it wasn't pleasant. Be careful...

Beijing Loafer said...

I was having dinner with an American reporter last night and we talked about how to keep politics out of movies. The truth seems to be, that anything in China with an edge would be considered political.

At the same time, I honestly don't think the government is bent on suppressing different voices anytime it finds one. The fact that the plainclothes cops allowed me to shoot for so long indicated to me that first, they were tasked to harrass, not suppress; secondly, they were not good at harrassing; thirdly, they could turn vicious and violent if provoked.

To me, the last is the most dangerous...

Ken (The Runcible) said...

Just a thought - maybe you should consider making acquaintance with some local cops - I know it's harder than it sounds but that could help you tremendously.

A last straw in case you run into trouble - I've heard people using their US permanent residency as a protection against violent but ignorant cops - they can't tell the difference between a US citizen and a legal alien.

Beijing Loafer said...

I'll gel my hair and wear my Banana Republic sports jacket every time I go filming. And I'll tell the cops I'm from the "foreign media". That should get them to show some respect. :)

Anonymous said...

Be careful China has not changed...Just like the Classic "Heroes of the Marshes", the State kills off its true patriots so the corrupt can continue to rule and indulge in feasts and earthly desires while the poor and ignorant starve...
The Chinese Messenger and True Patriot.