People’s Park: The Aesthetics of People Watching

People’s Park (Cinema on the Edge: Best of Beijing Indie Film Festival)
Director: J.P. Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn
Country: USA/China
Year: 2012

People’s Park
People’s Park


People’s Park, as part of remarkable oeuvre produced by Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL). It stands along with other oft-mentioned daring pieces such as Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s radically groundbreaking Leviathan (2012), and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s minimalistic cine-portrait Manakamana (2013). SEL has long been considered one of the most original and creative voices in the documentary field which seeks to implement or make the audience experience the sensory dynamics of the world— encompassing both natural and unnatural, animate and inanimate subject.

In ethnographic filmmaking, especially in a SEL production, there is always an expectation that the methodology of People’s Park might be not as simple as it seems. A 78-minute single tracking shot unfolds an extremely diverse and strangely harmonious co-presences of activities in the public park and soon engulfs us with a stimulating soundscape. Nowadays, the single take is dangerous, since the aesthetics of single take, or pseudo-single take, can be too easily be heralded as innovative or clever conceit while suffering from the reality of being taken for granted and losing its goal of explaining, exploring and responding.

Instead of hiring camera crews to operate a Steadicam, J.P. Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn turned to the use of wheelchair, which is frequently seen in amateur filmmaking and early cinema. Libbie D. Cohen sat in a wheelchair holding the camera while J.P. Sniadecki pushing her along. The use of wheelchair helps create a Stadicam-like result and simultaneously simulate the shooting process to the experience of wheelchair strolling in the park. The act of walking (or a handicapped person rolling through the park in a wheelchair) is thus manifested in their shooting process.

People’s Park
People’s Park


However, it is certainly an unusual walk— with all the film equipment set up in and around the wheelchair, the walk proceeds at an abnormally slow pace, with the purpose of completing the well-planned itinerary and sustaining a conceited methodological series of events. As the film is all about capturing the maximum of spectacles of daily life that can be encountered in the People’s Park, the filming process stands in its own right as an immersive experience of encountering spectacles while being a spectacle itself (probably the weirdest one). Thus, the scenarios of filming and being filmed become a confrontation of two spectacles, with their dynamics constantly bouncing back to the presence of the camera.  The camera  speaks the language of disturbance, provocation, and invitation, even though the person holding the camera is physically restrained in the wheelchair.

We see people walking by, dancing to Chinese pop songs, playing xiangqi and mahjong, performing kung-fu tea pouring, enjoy themselves in loud karaoke singing, writing water calligraphy with its character disappearing one by one as they dry on the ground, or just staring at the camera, transfixed, as if they can see through it. The camera surveys extremely wide panoramas of human activities, including subtle gestures of sudden anxiety, uneasiness, curiosity, pretentious indifference, and the pleasure of being filmed. It’s an extravaganza of local culture, spectacles, and surfaces, without any chance of venturing deep or looking back. This sometimes does lead to a sense of frustration for the audience who would like to pause and see more of some things.

People’s Park
People’s Park


The final sequence is remarkable. The camera glides through the crowd, and comes into a huge open space where a myriad of possibilities are embraced: breakdance, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk dance, pair dance, or some highly idiosyncratic style of dance that is hardly seen elsewhere. Styles are refreshingly diverse, but the folks are all dancing to the same heavily electronic disco music. There comes a time when senses are brought to a state of euphoric intensity, when the camera movement becomes part of the dancing scene, when the camera finds itself in the arena of gaze, ceaselessly watching and being watched. Liberating and bizarre at the same time, and yet so true to the core. The film is brought to the end when an old man bends backwards in a dance move and staring into the camera, from which everything returns to where it all began: the gaze.

People’s Park is presented as part of Cinema on the Edge: Best of Beijing Indie Film Festival film series in New York. For more detail, please see:

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