On 12 May 12 2008, at 14:28 CST, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan Province in China, leaving an estimated 100,000 people dead. Du Haibin’s 1428 documents what the film-maker saw during two separate trips to Beichuan in Sichuan. The film divides into two roughly equal parts, with the first focusing on images shot during the first trip, ten days after the disaster, and the second on images recorded 210 days after the disaster. While Du’s interest in exploring responses to the disaster that were not part of ‘the mainstream media record’ (Du 2009) remains constant throughout, each of the film’s parts has its own focus and indeed its own editing style.
In the first the focus is on how the survivors of the earthquake make sense of the devastation and their loss, and on the ways they find to survive in the wake of the disaster. A mysterious, nameless and dishevelled vagabond-like figure, who wanders into framings, who stares into the camera, and whom the camera follows as he marches through a town reduced to rubble, provides a counterpoint, often through montage, to the various stories that emerge through Du’s interaction with the survivors.
In the second part of the film the focus shifts to the ways in which survivors sought opportunities in the disaster through, for example, the use of marketing techniques to frame new buildings as tourist spots and through the selling of various types of disaster memorabilia to tourists eager to see the sites of earlier death and devastation. As our attention turns to the situation 210 days after the disaster, we find that the vagabond-like figure, with his matted hair, torn clothes and bare feet, has been given a name (Yang Bing-bing) and a context, and that his story is now connected to those of others. In the second part of the film Du and Mary Stephen (well known for her editing of Eric Rohmer’s films) set aside montage in favour of an approach that redefines the space around the dishevelled vagabond by means of ‘a Bazinian use of the depth of field’ (Reynaud 2009). And this in turn allows the film-maker to articulate the film’s central point, which is that the situation in Beichuan, Sichuan before the disaster was anything but promising, for reasons having to do, we are led to believe, with human nature and the challenging realities of contemporary China. Off-screen the film-maker asks the father of Yang Bing-bing a key question: ‘What is the difference between your life before and after the earthquake?’ The response given is telling: ‘Almost the same. Our life is getting better now. We have more clothes and quilts now. The money is distributed by the government. We got more this month.’
In terms of the established types of documentary film-making, Du Haibin’s 1428 combines elements of direct cinema with a more interactive approach, but complicates all this through the montage-style editing used in connection with the vagabond in the first part of the film. The international cut of 1428 (116 minutes) has been shown at many international film festivals and won the prestigious Orizzonti Prize for Best Documentary at the 66th Venice Film Festival.