A final look at a dead way of life, Last Days in Shibati is a filmic record of a once thriving neighbourhood soon to be demolished to make way for development.
French director Hendrick Dusollier’s first documentary captures the final days of Shibati, the last old quarter in the city of Chongqing, China. Many in Europe will have never heard of this place, but Chongqing is one of the biggest cities in the world. Over 30 million people live in the municipality. That’s 6 times the population of Norway living in one urban area.
«The film strives to reclaim the intimacy between people and place.»
End of an Era
The city itself looks like any modern Asian metropolis, with high buildings and shopping malls. To make space for these, the government is one by one erasing old streets and buildings. Over a period of 7 months, Dusollier follows the changes in the one remaining old neighbourhood as it heads towards its demolition.
«With its labyrinthine streets buzzing with life, this place was a time capsule, reminiscent of the city’s beginnings and of a lifestyle that is generally disappearing fast.»
The inhabitants of Shibati are one by one moving out, either to live with relatives or to state-assigned apartments in the suburbs. The film encompasses the feeling of the place and encounters the last people living there. The disruption created by the destruction of their neighbourhood is visible in all the sentimental and bittersweet details the camera captures.
For many years now, stories of people that objected to the state-imposed demolition of their homes made headlines in the Western media. For example: a few years ago an elderly couple in Wenling, Zhejiang province were the latest people in China to refuse to sign an agreement allowing their home to be demolished, resulting in the authorities constructing a planned road around their building. These are called nail houses, the buildings that remain standing after everything around them is destroyed and redeveloped. They are tiny totems of the past defying annihilation by the future. In the end however, their disappearance is only a matter of time.
«The disruption created by the destruction of their neighbourhood is visible in all the sentimental and bittersweet details the camera captures.»
At the time of Dusollier’s filming, the disappearance of Shibati is inevitable. Modernization in China resembles a wave, wiping away the old and replacing it with the new. New roads, new high-rise apartment buildings and new shopping malls appear overnight. These developments leave little space for nostalgia, or for reflection on what’s being lost in the process of change.
However, the film strives to reclaim the intimacy between people and place. It also captures a sense of belonging in which the people shape their surroundings and their surroundings shape them. The way people are and how they live seems so inherently linked to their neighbourhood that it’s difficult to imagine who they will become once the neighbourhood is no more. Its disappearance means the end of their community and will take away their source of income – selling food locally, cutting hair or sorting garbage. It will also sever all their social bonds.
As he roams around Shibati, Dusollier finds the extraordinary in two unlikely ’local guides’ he befriends. One is a little boy called Zhou Hong and the other is an amazing old lady, Mrs Xue Lian. Zhou Hong takes an interest in Dusollier and offers to guide him to Moonlight City. One would expect this to be a temple or a spectacular view, but at the end of their walk we find a shopping mall covered with TV screens and lights. To the boy this is the fascinating unknown, a place where he’s not allowed to go.
«Tiny totems of the past defying annihilation by the future.»
The other ’guide’, Mrs Xue Lian, at first seems to be just a garbage sorter. ’My life is very rich’, she says, and by the end of the film there’s no doubt that this is true. Incredibly creative, open and optimistic, she collects surprising items she finds in the garbage. She gives them a new life as part of fantasy-like secret corners she creates in the neighbourhood. Her favourite items are a huge half-horse statue and a gigantic mushroom, two objects that look surreal in her home and make you wonder about who threw them in the trash. There’s more, but her world is too sophisticated to describe here. The way she reaches us through the images is much more powerful. ’I’ll travel to France through your photos’, she tells Dusollier.
She seems flattered that Dusollier takes an interest in her. We wonder at that bit of magic that she is and worry about what will happen to her.
«Modernization in China resembles a wave, wiping away the old and replacing it with the new.»
A Place No More
As I’m writing this, Shibati is already cut down. With its labyrinthine streets buzzing with life, this place was a time capsule, reminiscent of the city’s beginnings and of a lifestyle that is generally disappearing fast. If you look at a map, Shibati was at the heart of the city, a starting point. Now all that’s left of that heart is this film.
Last Days in Shibati won the Special Jury Award in the 2017 IDFA Competition for Mid-Length Documentary.