Life, especially its contemporary and hypermodern iteration, has a way of reducing people, taking nuance away from them. We all destroy each other on social media and sometimes, you’re that person that others try to destroy. The cyclical nature of this though, especially in the West, means that people here experience less consequences. This isn’t the same thing in the People’s Republic of China, a country that’s both hyper capitalist and communist. The country’s tendency to hold on to the latter ideology makes it prosecute its activists and freethinking people. These trials happen both on social media and in real life, where the court system labels activists as ‘agitators’.
In telling the story of these agitators, the documentary, as it should, competently mixes several elements. It shows the social media arm of news companies showing their version of what these agitators do. It also shows propaganda, encouraging citizens to tell on each other or notice if things in public are awry. Some of the subjects sit down for traditional interviews while at other times, it captures them speaking to each other. One of the subjects of Zhang ‘Lynn’ Jialing’s Total Trust, reporter Sophia Xueqin Huang, recounts what seems like an act of kindness. A man offers to warm her soup but he only does this because he knows her private info like her menstrual cycle.
Total Trust goes between disseminating information in the traditional way and showing the ‘mundane’. Or at least, it shows what passes as mundane in a country where people have to watch out in case someone is spying on them. It shows grown men tense even when they’re in their private homes. They know what’s on their version of the outside, a country that has ideologies in perpetual contradiction. A country that, despite calling itself communist, stops protecting members of the proletariat once their ideas stray from the norm. A regime that displays technological innovation but it’s as if that technology has a life of its own.
I was probably too harsh on Zhang Jialing’s previous work One Child Nation. But I do remember that film feeling overly personal whereas Total Trust only gives viewers the human angle half the time. That’s not a bad thing here though, because it works and makes us savour the humans even when they’re off screen. Glass structures and brick and mortar prisons remind us of the humans they represent. They remind us of how regimes use big data against their citizens. A family drove hours to go to a prison only for the guards to deny them their visitation rights. Seeing the People’s Republic’s structures remind us of the family crying out to be complete again.
Total Trust comes out on demand tomorrow.