Sunday in PekingDimanche á Pekin/Sunday in Peking (1956 France 22 mins)

Prod Co: Argos Films/Pavox Films Prod: Madeleine Casanova-Rodriguez Dir, Scr, Phot: Chris Marker Ed: Francine Grubert Mus: Pierre Barbaud Narration: Gilles Quéant Visual Advisor: Agnès Varda

In describing Peking/Beijing, Chris Marker understands that, no matter how sincere his intentions may be he will never be more than an outside observer to this or any other culture he visits. Rather than ignore or disguise this problem, he runs with it. Literal performances and cultural displays are made the dominant subject of Dimanche á Pekin’s (Sunday in Peking) assembled footage. Gymnasts, dancers, shadow puppets, acrobats all feature to such a degree that, if the film was the viewer’s first exposure to Chinese culture, they could begin to imagine a kind of circus-nation, one in which performance was as common a means of communication as writing or speaking.

The narrator’s first introduction to a street performance seduces us into a cultural misunderstanding; “in a park the Pekinese of today is doing his daily exercise” as a man practices complex sword movements as “the traditional sword takes the place of western dumbbells…”. Seduction completed, the camera pans across to show a captive audience, joining the viewer marvelling at his skill. As well as the beginning of a discussion on culture as performance, this playful deception is also a reminder of how eagre we are to believe an authoritative voice when it aligns with a preconceived notion of the Exotic. That the man is called the “The Pekinese of today”, apparently the cultural representative for all the city’s inhabitants, drives this point home.

Later, the narrator describes girls dancing and singing a tune that would stay with him for the rest of the day. This is accompanied by a montage of little dances; firstly girls in uniform, playing a kind of game, then another group of older girls, dancing in a circle. One of the raised arms is the matched to the arm of a man pulling a cart, waving to someone across the street. In the next shot we see a policeman with arm raised as he directs traffic. All these links form a chain of logic that again suggests the performative dynamic between the tourist or visitor and the local – a separation that, while not insurmountable, needs to be acknowledged. The antidote for these “barriers” are sprinkled throughout Dimanche á Pekin, as the narrator continually reminds the viewer to find similarities between themselves and the people and locations they see on screen by linking them with Western concepts and places like Hyde Park and Bastille Day.

The “players” in Dimanche á Pekin do not perform in a void. A stage is provided for them in the form of dusty streets and colourful street stalls and “traditional” architecture. The narrator describes “the permanent exhibit of the treasures of Peking, from the penny toys they sell on the pavement to the shops covered with characters as if they were huge boxes of tea”. Similarly, his description of his school visit – “we are shown to a model school with model little girls” – again suggests that the image and event we are watching is offered up for the entertainment of Western visitors. Marker then inverts this notion by describing the girls’ reaction to his picture-book from France as they laugh “at the sight of these weird symbols which, I am told, give the Chinese all the thrills of the exotic”. We (Westerners) are made foreign and strange in an instant. These negotiations of subjectivity, Marker’s own and that of his subjects and audiences, compliment the filmmaker’s ongoing concerns regarding the malleable nature of “truth”, particularly in association with the tools and products of representation. As Jonathan Kear writes:

Eschewing the traditional historian’s omniscient gaze, Marker’s films draw our attention instead to the tropes that frame and mediate our perception and recording of events and in this way serve to de-naturalise historical accounts, showing how claims to ‘truth’ are always ideologically mediated. (1)

Dimanche á Pekin is more postcard than documentary; personal, sentimental, dog-eared and faded by sun and time. The continuous, almost stream-of-consciousness narration combines poetic language, historical and geographical information and emotional reaction. The result is a vigorous self-reflexivity that continually reaffirms the subjective nature of each sentence and image presented and provides a welcome antidote to the authoritative, singular “voice of God” style of narration so common in classical documentary. The film essentially describes Marker’s impressions of the city. It is not an attempt to provide a definitive answer to the question “what (or who) is Peking?”

At the same time, Marker merrily messes up the boundaries between individual and cultural memory by acknowledging that his observations have been heavily coloured by his own experience of popular culture – from the storybooks of his childhood to the newsreels and fiction films consumed throughout his life. The outer townships of the city with their banners and tiny lanes are the “Peking of the movies”; the Forbidden City is the “Peking of Jules Verne and Marco Polo…”. We understand what he means instantly – an understanding that is dependant on our own collective experience of Western culture, now used to interpret a filmmaker’s personal memories written down over 50 years ago.

Dimanche á Pekin was shot over several weeks but is structured to mimic the itinerary of a single day (Sunday) as if scribbled in a diary; rough notes and impressions to include in a letter home on another day. The “day” is marked by blocks of time – Dawn, 10am, Midday, etc. Marker describes a single day in the city to make clear that the day before or after it may result in a different impression, as would a description made on the same day by another filmmaker (or historian, novelist or photographer for that matter). Jan-Christopher Horak’s discussion of Marker’s photography and documentary work is relevant and succinct here:

Marker is emphatically stating that his subjectivity is dependant on his position within space and time. The writer and filmmaker exist only for a moment in the act of writing in Paris, while the cameraman lives briefly in Japan or China or Siberia in 1955 or 1965 or 1979. (2)

This technique aligns with the ideas Marker has continued to play with throughout his creative life – that is, the transient nature of historical truth and its unavoidable entanglement with personal memories and cultural forms.In this context, Dimanche á Pekin can be read as a humble contribution to the multitude of voices that try to describe a city that, to this day, is overrun with cultural stereotypes, mysticism, and mythologies, communist and anti-communist propaganda.

Endnotes

  1. Jonathan Kear, “The Clothing of Clio: Chris Marker’s Poetics and the Politics of Representing History”, Film Studies no. 6, Summer 2005, p. 58.
  2. Jan-Christopher Horak, Making Images Move, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 52.

About The Author

Louise Sheedy is the program coordinator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines the interplay of politics and aesthetics in critical documentary on the Vietnam War.