Zhao Liang, Petition, 2009, stills from a color video, 123 minutes.

EMERGING FROM ARDUOUS, dangerous, in-the-trenches work, Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang’s documentary investigations open onto profound problems in China that are often kept hidden by the country’s authorities. His interest is in the banal mechanics of systematic oppression: His remarkable debut Crime and Punishment (2007), for instance, provides a rare look into the People’s Armed Police, a branch of law enforcement similar to the military in its regimented lifestyle and coldly abusive administration of “justice.” The emotional frustration and dehumanization of young PAP men working in an isolated Northeastern region becomes fodder for abuse of undeserving suspects: a deaf-mute kleptomaniac beaten when he cannot respond to questions, an elderly scrap collector repeatedly and pointlessly castigated for his son’s antipolice remarks, and a group of timber thieves pummeled in a counterproductive interrogation (fines were reduced after the suspects’ families lodged complaints).

His latest work, Petition (2009), was filmed over more than a decade, and goes even deeper to uncover a segment of Chinese society left silent and demoralized by bureaucracy and corruption. These are the “petitioners” who, after being continually buffeted by local institutions, gravitate toward the State Bureau of Letters and Calls at the Beijing South Railway Station to file grievances against unjust imprisonments, broken financial agreements, and other injustices committed by the government. They transplant their lives to wait by the station; the same persistent petitioners are, year after year, rebuffed by a circuitous ticket system—or else brutal force.

Though their endless fight to be heard seems hopeless and their belief in ultimate vindication appears nearly delusional, the stubborn, vagrant petitioners are depicted as representatives of democratic courage marginalized and torn apart by a dismissive communist dictatorship. In the film’s most notable story line, a petitioning woman must painfully confront the independence of her daughter, who seeks a life and family of her own after having been taken out of school to stay by her mother’s side during her mother’s fruitless quest to receive recognition of her husband’s wrongful death. Petition thoroughly demonstrates China’s farce of due process, but also agonizingly captures the lives emotionally malformed by it.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Petition runs January 14–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.