Chinese Reality #6: The Satiated Village
To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.
Jiu zu fan bao de cun (The Satiated Village)
The Satiated Village (2011, dir. Zou Xueping)
2011. China. Directed by Zou Xueping.
Wu Wenguang’s Folk Memory Documentary Project, which encourages amateur filmmakers to investigate the hidden histories of their home villages, gave rise to Zou Xueping’s first feature, The Starving Village, for which Zou interviewed residents of his hometown about their experiences during a famine that killed tens of millions. In this follow-up, Zou tries to screen the film in her village, only to meet resistance from family and neighbors fearful of official reprisal. Undeterred, Zou uses her camera to mediate her hometown’s ability to confront its tragic past, with near-miraculous results.
Excerpts from select reviews and writings:
By engaging several generations of villagers with the controversy of screening Hungry [aka Starving] Village abroad (which means the foreign world would come to know about the peasants’ sufferings and humiliations in the Great Famine), Zou perceptively parallels layered opinions and arguments between opposing sides. As her screening plan progresses, she further teases out her fellow villagers’ unstated motivations and ideological blind spots, indicating somewhat what the filmmaker finds most problematic with their thoughts and spirits. While refraining from endorsing either opinion or jumping to judgment, Zou’s self-reflexive techniques of exposing tense discussions with her parents and laying bare her conflicting and hesitant moments have opened up, rather than limited possibilities to wrestle with the thorny, weighty subjects of memory and trauma.
– Ma Ran, “Truths, Myths and Cliches: The 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival,” Senses of Cinema, December 2012.
The title is a mildly sarcastic play on Zou’s first feature The Starving Village, in which she interviewed elderly villagers about their experiences during a national famine that killed tens of millions during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. In what amounts to a sequel, Zou tries to screen the film for her subjects, but meets resistance from family members who fear the film may bring unwanted attention as a shameful reminder of a Communist legacy better left forgotten. “Our lives are happy now, why cause trouble?” they ask. Zou presses on, organizing screenings not only for the elderly villagers but also for local schoolchildren. The two events are stunning mirrors of each other, as both 90- and 9-year-olds debate whether the film will “bring shame to China,” revealing a pervasive anxiety wrought by nationalism. But as the conversations continue, a less received, more conscientious engagement with history through communal discourse emerges almost miraculously before Zou’s lens. Self-aware in the best sense, the film sets a high standard for the ethical practice of documentary filmmaking as a tool for social awakening.
– Kevin B. Lee, Sight & Sound, October 2012
The Memory Project, launched in 2010, was designed with as much credence to oral history and family succession as to extending documentary practices to the boundaries of Chinese village life. The aim of the Memory Project is to dispatch young filmmakers – mostly recent college graduates – away from urban landscapes and Wu’s Caochangdi Workstation in Beijing to their hometowns, the villages of their predecessors. Here, armed with digital cameras and a posture that is as earnest and curious as it is “independent,” these filmmakers being to unravel stories of village histories and politics, stories of their families and themselves.
– Maya Rudolph, “Getting the Past Out Loud.”
Through film and stage performances, these young people are reclaiming history, telling for the first time these personal stories of some of the millions who starved to death as a result of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
Under the reform policies, agriculture was collectivized, and villages set up communal kitchens, forcing villagers to hand over their cooking implements — even their ladles — to the commune.
When exaggerated grain yields were reported, the state set unrealistic procurement quotas and the communes ran out of food, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 36 million people, though Western scholars have put the figure as high as 45 million
– Louisa Lim, “Recording the Untold Stories of China’s Great Famine.” NPR, November 11, 2012.
Q: The majority of the people participating in this project as filmmakers are pretty young, born in the 80s or 90s. You’ve said that your generation’s view of cinema differs greatly from that of these young people. What do you feel you have to teach one another – what kind of exchange do you have?
A: These kids have a lot of confidence, real self-starters. I don’t know if I really can teach them much. We can simply work together. Sometimes, the people in these villages think I’ve taught them how to shoot and what to shoot. This isn’t the case; they’ve chosen how and what to shoot by themselves. What I have to teach them isn’t important. What is important is their own work and how they choose to conduct it.
– Wu Wenguang, interviewed by Maya E. Rudolph at New York University, December 16 2011.