Small Part, Big Screen

A Beijing Migrant Tries to Break Into the Movies

Every morning outside the imposing gate of the Beijing Film Studio, a throng gathers to try to find a way inside. These aren’t fans, exactly. Look at their faces, the practiced way they crane their necks or square their shoulders when the man with the clipboard comes out to take their measure. This is a shape-up, the day laborer’s morning ritual: stand tall, make eye contact, get the boss to pick me.

During a three week period in 2009, Zhang Jianhui went through these motions daily. After a few months in Beijing waiting tables and selling dumplings outside a railroad station, he was bored. Though unable to afford a ticket to one of the capital’s gleaming new multiplexes, he dreamed of being in the movies. He convinced himself he had as good a shot as anybody at being glimpsed, one among thousands, if only for a second, in one of the roughly 400 movies made in China each year. And so he gave up a steady, if meager, salary and place to live and began to wait in the crowd gathered on the sooty curb at dawn, peering through the gate, hoping he’d be picked as an extra.

Anyone who has ever looked for work knows something about acting. And as Gilles Sabrié’s photos make us see, Chinese country kids transplanted to strange new cities are as adept performers as any on earth: they put on new clothes, try to mask their provincial accents, feign skills; their lives depend on pleasing an audience of strangers.

Sabrié’s documentary, Zhang, Une Jeunesse Chinoise, was originally produced in French by France Télévisions and narrative in 2010. We have translated and adapted it for ChinaFile. —The Editors