Tuesday, April 9, 2013

THE REVOLUTIONARY: Drasnin, Ostrander and Sellers' doc about an American in China

A first-class work of documentary film-making about an American man -- Sidney Rittenberg -- who has spent half of his adult life living, working and being imprisoned in China, THE REVOLUTIONARY is one of those very rare movies that speaks honestly, directly and poignantly to the need so many of us feel, especially when we are young, to help change the world and make it a better place for all humanity. And then the movie shows us, with clarity and grace, how difficult and deceptive such a task turns out to be.

The Revolutionary is the work of -- in addition to Mr. Rittenberg (shown at right, above), who is on screen almost constantly as his young, middle-age and then elderly self -- a trio of filmmakers: Irv Drasnin (above, left, who directed and narrates), Lucy Ostrander (center, right, who co-produced) and Don Sellers (center, left, who shot and edited the film). Theirs is one of those unusual movies that should appeal (and without a bit of special pleading or kowtowing) to both sides of the political spectrum.

There is plenty here to please progressives -- the young, Jewish man (at right) from America's south, who begins as a student activist and labor organi-zer who is then trained by the American military as a linguist in Chinese and sta-tioned in China at the end of World War II. His extra-ordinary abilities endear him to the Chinese -- right up to and including Mao -- whose guerrilla war inspires Rittenberg to the point that he agrees to stay permanently in China to help build a cultural bridge between the two countries.
What will please our Communist-hating right wing, of course, is the picture the movie paints of the enormous damage done to China and its people by Chairman Mao, whom Rittenberg calls both a great hero and a great criminal -- and then in the 90 minutes that follow shows us why. The story that this extremely bright and thoughtful fellow tells -- based on his book with Amanda Bennett, The Man Who Stayed Behind -- is eye-opening in so many ways about so many things that it becomes an immediate must-see for anyone interested in history, China or the human impulse toward bettering the world (while making one's own way in it).

We get some marvelous anecdotes about Mao, Mrs. Mao, the Gang of Four, and work and political life in China over the 35 years that Rittenberg (shown below, these days) was there. (He was in prison for a good many of these years!). Married to two Chinese women over that time, there is a great deal of personal material here, too, and it's as interesting as all the rest.
By turns funny, shocking, moving, thoughtful and bone-deep sad, The Revolutionary won't change your mind about much. But it will open it up in a manner that few films previously have managed: making the personal indeed political and vice versa, while offering a view of China from the 1940s through 1980 that we have simply never before seen.

This film, notes Mr. Drasnin, cannot be shown to public audiences in China. I guess not. We wouldn't want that nation -- after all the venality, stupidity, propaganda, famine and mass murder its people have suffered over the modern decades -- to now undergo a collective heart attack.

We're only as far as the fourth month into 2013, but this film is so important in so many ways, as well as being so beautifully executed -- archival footage, posters of the time, and the marvelous Mr. Rittenberg himself -- that it immediately becomes the best documentary so far this year and, I would think, a shoo-in for the shortlist come Oscar time next.

The movie opens this Friday, April 12, at the Quad Cinema in New York City and plays through April 18, with two screenings daily at 4 and 7:30pm. Filmmaker Drasner will appear at several screenings for a Q&A, and Rittenberg himself -- now age 95 -- will be available for a Q&A via Skype. Check here or here, closer to the day you'll attend, to learn specifics on these Q&As, and click here to see all currently scheduled further screenings of this film across the country.

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