“There’s an old saying in China,” a teenager explains, “that says ‘if the old does not go, the new cannot come.’” J.P. Sniadecki’s film “Demolition” is a challenging survey on China’s fastest growing industry that blends images and sounds to document a salvage crew working for three weeks on a construction site in Downtown Chengdu. Currently residing in China and working towards his PhD at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Sniadecki merged his previous studies in East Asian culture with his love for capturing public space to make “Demolition” by providing the audience with his edited version of the images and sounds of the construction site.
The capital city in the vastly rural province of Sichuan, Chengdu represents the striking changes within one of the world’s most economically prosperous countries. The temporary crew is made up of lower class men and their families who have traveled from the countryside for work in the city. As they pry steel rebar from decades-old concrete, teens from the surrounding urban areas test out their skills at a neighboring BMX park. Though we only hear Sniadecki, who is about as blonde and blue-eyed as they get, speak with his subjects in Chinese throughout the film, the boys talk to the filmmaker in both English and Chinese, whereas the workers only speak to him in two dialects of Chinese. These young boys are also well dressed and have the freedom to hang out at all times of the day. This culture clash further pits the new against the old and the rich against the poor.
Sniadecki, during a visit to USC’s humble little Anth 575 class, spoke about the importance of layered soundtracks when watching an ethnographic film. He reminisced about the days of film recording when directors didn’t have the ability to rely on the built-in omni-directional microphones that come standard with cameras today and instead would record independent audio from different moments and places at their fieldsite. His sense of observation allows him to perfectly frame his shots of the basic movements of the laborers while still capturing the obnoxious city soundtrack.
To paint a picture of the Chinese attitude towards progress, he pairs the sounds machines and a bustling city center with footage of the workers and a bulldozer salvaging tangled metal, which is highly ethnographic in itself, but if only for 15 minutes. As the film begins, one can’t help but wonder while watching the film if we are missing a certain level of understanding between Sniadecki and his subjects. The film picks up once it enters its second act by introducing conversations with the construction workers. He engages with them during meals and other break times to offer a glimpse of their impoverished lives: shed-like living quarters, tattered clothing and inadequate diets. Even during these insightful moments as the men talk about technology, smoking and X-rated films, we still hear the sounds of the people, cars and machines that litter the bustling city.
You can check out Sniadecki and other Chinese ethnographers this weekend at USC’s US-China Institute and Center for Visual Anthropology’s symposium on U.S. - China Dialogues. Click here for more information about the event.