EVENT REVIEW Unseen China
This event was staged on 25th February 2012.
Unseen China was an afternoon of independent documentaries screened at the BFI. Brought together by China Culture Connect, the event included selection of rare shorts and documentaries, addressing a variety of social concerns and problems facing modern China.
This sold out event offered an alternative perspective on China through the medium of documentary film. All the films screened were independently financed, a decision which effects the films economically as well as politically. Because the majority of state-funded films in China are subject to government censorship, self-financed films are the only way for many filmmakers to have complete artistic control over what they film and how they depict certain issues. This artistic freedom, however, also comes at a price, as it is unlikely that any of these films will ever be screened publicly inside China.
Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, the wide range of documentaries on show was thoroughly encouraging to see. One of the main topics consistent throughout nearly all of the films was the environment, and the government-sanctioned destruction of the land through urban planning. The transformation of the Chinese landscape in the past few decades can be seen as a reflection of the country’s rapid development and economic expansion. In every large city throughout China, old buildings and even entire neighbourhoods are being destroyed and flattened to make way for new ones, without properly re-housing many of its residents. In the countryside, the situation is even worse, as developers move in on rural farmers’ land, corrupting and bribing government officials in order to rewrite land deeds. In many of these films, this tension between the old and the new, the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor is more evident now than ever before. What these documentaries all seem to suggest is that China’s current economic development is something which can only be sustained by exploiting large amounts of its population. Although living conditions seem to be largely improving for the wealthy and middle-class in China, those on the bottom rungs of the society are finding everyday life more of an uphill struggle.
The event kicked off with a short documentary called Tide, which tackled a topic which has already been addressed by director Lixin Fan in the documentary Last Train Home. Both films depict the phenomenon of Chunyun, the mass annual Chinese migration that takes place during the Spring Festival period. As some claim, it is the biggest annual migration of people in the world. Unlike Last Train Home, which focuses on the story of one family, Tide is simply a collection of images and long shots, capturing the swirling pools of people huddled outside train stations. It is, nonetheless, still visually impacting and surreal to watch.
The main problem represented by both these films is the size of China’s population, which is also the cause for many of its social and economic problems. However, another issue represented by Chunyun is the new and emerging social class of migrant workers, who make up a large percent of these passengers. For many, the Spring Festival is their only chance of a break in the whole year, and so many make the arduous journey back to their home towns in order to spend a few days with their families. These men and women all come from poor, rural areas, and move to larger cities in order to find work in factories, or as manual labourers. Their hours are often gruelling, the conditions dangerous, and the pay minuscule. In addition, due to the current Hukou registry system in China, these migrant workers do not qualify for the same government services as city-residents, such as health care, housing or education for their children. They become, in effect, second-class citizens in their own country, polarising the difference between the rural and urban.
Every morning in certain areas of the city, recruiters and migrant workers huddle together, each looking to find the right match.
My 4-Fen Land is another short documentary about the Bai ethnic minority in Yunan, Southwest China. The title refers to the size of the farmer’s land, which roughly equates to about 265m2 (1 fen is approximately 66m2). The rice he grows on this land is barely enough to feed him and his family, but he still resorts to selling some of the grain in order to make ends meet. As a result of the global recessions, the rising cost of food and other products have meant that daily life is now more of struggle than ever before for this family. Although this agrarian life seems miles away from the world of trading and stock markets, the slow trickling down of wealth means that here, they too are bearing the brunt of the global recession.
Viewpoint also investigates the impact of the global recession on China’s ever expanding free market. Yiwu is a commercial hub in Zhejiang province, East China, which was named the world’s largest small-commodity wholesale market in 2005. Since the recession, however, and despite the scale of demand, factory owners and employers are still struggling to recruit workers. Every morning in certain areas of the city, recruiters and migrant workers huddle together, each looking to find the right match. The kind of jobs on offer consists of mainly factory work, construction, or other kinds of manual labour. One woman is offered the role of assembling and packaging belts in a factory. She is told that on top a meagre basic wage, for every pack she makes, she will be paid 4 fen – the equivalent of 0.4 pence. She contemplates it for a moment, before walking away.
Through speaking to recruiters and workers, the conditions facing both parties seem to be equally challenging, at times. On paper, the workers are promised free lodgings and three meals a day if they sign up. They’ll be required to work no more then 9-10 hours a day, and will receive a salary of 2000-3000 Yuan a month (£200-300). The reality facing most when they arrive at their destination is very different; 12 hour or so long days without break, no days off at all, and no meals provided. On top of that, as a result of the current economic climate, many factory owners and suppliers are struggling to get paid themselves, and thus often withhold staff wages for months at a time. Although the workers are desperate for work, the conditions are often so demanding that few agree to it. The end result is a surplus of work that no-one wants to do, and a surplus of workers that no-one wants to employ. Every day in Yiwu begins as a kind of standoff between the migrant workers and recruiters, who while away the time playing cards and napping, both waiting for an opportunity that they can exploit.
Water And Land is an intimate portrait of a 17-year-old girl named Ru, who decides to leave her home town, a small fishing village outside Guangzhou, in order to find work and support herself. She tries out a variety of jobs, from modelling to shop assistant to hairdresser. None of them are particularly suitable, but Ru perseveres despite her family’s reservations. Hers is a story that is all too common throughout China, as thousands of teenagers leave home every day in order to find work and gain their independence. For those families who cannot afford to send their children to university, leaving school early and moving to the city is the only chance their children will have at achieving any kind of success. Nowadays, in rural areas and villages everywhere, the only ones who stay behind are the elderly or those too ill to work, as there are literally no opportunities to be found here anymore.
Peiyin explains that they are able to pay for their son’s housing fee by selling off produce from the walnut tree in their garden every year.
Brave Father was undoubtedly the star of the event, and the longest out of all the documentaries. It focused on the story of a rural family, and a jolly man named Peiyin who has to find a way to fund his son’s university education in Xi’an. Although the Han family are fairly well to do for their village, in order to pay for their son’s tuition fees, they resort to selling their entire livestock, land and even house. The father also moves to Xi’an with his son, and takes a job as a construction worker in order to pay for his son’s living costs. Once a month, Peiyin meets up with his son, an introverted boy named Shengli, and gives him his 200 Yuan (about £20) stipend. Even in China, this amount of money does not go very far, given the soaring price of food and everyday commodities.
Unsurprisingly, money is a topic that crops up again and again in this film. Rural families in China normally tend to be entirely self-sufficient, living off what they produce and making a little money here and there from selling off their surplus. As a result, they rarely have any disposable income to account for at all. Peiyin explains that they are able to pay for their son’s housing fee by selling off produce from the walnut tree in their garden every year. Shengli’s living expenses are funded by Peiyin’s wage as a construction worker. As a result, the father only spends 3-5 Yuan a day on himself, about 30-50 pence.
Sometimes, if there is a delay in his wages, Peiyin has a quick whip around his friends (all fellow migrant workers themselves) and borrows money from various people to give to his son. Every time, he meticulously writes down his debts in a small pocket notebook that he keeps on him at all times, and crosses them off one by one when they are paid up. Despite his father’s hard work, Shengli confesses to the camera that he is still struggling to support himself at university. In order to make ends meet, he collects recycling around the campus, exchanging other people’s discarded plastic and beer bottles for a few Yuan per kilo. His roommates pass on their hand-me-downs to Shengli, and out of all his friends, he is the only one without a mobile phone, laptop or mp3 player.
Although their circumstances appear to be gut-wrenchingly hopeless, Peiyin’s father still maintains an incredibly optimistic outlook. In one hilarious segment, he proudly displays the “Thank you Deng Xiaoping” he has proudly emblazoned across the front of his house to the cameraman. Peiyin is really the star of the film, whose jolly, charismatic nature is endearing to watch. He confesses his hopes and dreams to the camera, and that his only wish is for his son to find an office job with air-conditioning, and live a better life then he has. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that given the current job market, it is unlikely that Shengli will be able to do that straight away, and the father will have to keep working his construction job in Xi’an in order to pay off their family debts. The money the family so painfully scraped together in order to send Shengli to university appears to have reaped no rewards as of yet.
But like all of these films, Peiyin and Shengli’s story is not unique, but one of the billions of neglected voices struggling to be heard in a country that is quickly changing every day. What events such as Unseen China provide is a platform for these filmmakers to relay these stories to a wider audience, when they are being silenced and ignored in their own country, by their own government.
Although stylistically many of these documentaries were not particularly sophisticated, it is worth bearing in mind that these directors face so many obstacles in nearly every step of the filmmaking process. From financing to getting hold of the correct equipment and facilities, to even risking their lives by filming certain politically sensitive issues – being an independent filmmaker in China is certainly a dangerous and challenging job to have. But it is one which is all the more necessary, when the state press is nothing more than a propaganda tool, and journalists are investigated and imprisoned for straying from the official Party line. Documentary filmmaking in China needs to exist and be supported now more than ever before, because it provides a vital medium for these unseen and unheard voices to be broadcast, at a time when they existence is being threatened on a daily basis.
Unseen China is an excellent example of independent Chinese documentary filmmaking. Although some of these films may not be as polished as what we normally expect, their subject matters are always engrossing, and present a fascinating, alternative view of everyday life in China.
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