With China’s implementation of the Open Door Policy, as announced by Deng Xiaoping in December of 1978, marking its modernisation and increasing influence in the world. We are often highly fixated on the China’s Communist history and it’s rise in high politics over the last few decades, merely following the voices of powerful men and overlooking the inner workings of the nation. In saying this, this year’s Doc Edge International Documentary Film Festival features two unique films offering an insider’s glimpse of China.
Fallen Flowers, Thick Leaves
A film by Laetitia Schoofs
“The first half of my life is gone, in the second half I want to have a good man. Because this is probably my last chance of happiness” says 49-year-old Xiao Lihua, a recently widowed woman in China.
German director Laetitia Schoofs begins her documentary Fallen Flowers, Thick Leaves, with a hauntingly beautiful song and half a century old footage of Mao Zedong with the faces of hardworking women plowing fields and working in factories during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976). The Communist era in China marked an idolisation and celebration for ambitious women, encouraging their participation in the public sphere — they were known as “iron girls”. Moving into the twenty-first century however, the social status of Chinese women has witnessed a drastic shift, with issues the detainment of feminist activists, and rising rates of in sexual and domestic violence.
In the film, we also meet Wen-Wen, a 32 year old single and successful writer who challenges traditional ideas of the need for women to settle down both in her books and her lifestyle. ‘“ have many girlfriends like me who are also leftovers. Their families put on a lot of pressure [for them to settle down and get married]” she says. Through this Schoofs introduces to us the term “leftover women”, a label that has been increasingly used since 2007 for unmarried or single women passed the age of 27. With the widespread conception on how ‘An unmarried woman is incomplete’. Fallen Flowers, Thick Leaves reveals how these women are often shamed within their families and the wider community for their inability to adhere to traditional gender roles.
“I think it is very normal for human beings to have desires at any age” states Hua-Ying, a young feminist from the Bcome Feminist Group. Commenting on how Chinese women are often silenced or even denied basic rights to sexual knowledge, she speaks of the dangers this poses to the younger generation. Featuring sexologist Hongli Zhen, the documentary speaks about the stigma in China behind women’s sexuality. Engaging in open discussions of vibrators, masturbation, and self-love — Fallen Flowers, Thick Leaves provides intimate and personal accounts of women caught between deeply engrained ancient traditions, socialist values from the Cultural Revolution, modernisation and the rapid economic growth within contemporary Chinese society.
Get tickets and watch this film at the Doc Edge Festival 2017 in Wellington on Sunday 14th and Tuesday 16th of May, and in Auckland on Thursday 25th and Sunday 28th of May. You can book here.
A film by Jiu-Liang Wang
We open in a dark, confined space and a young child digging through what becomes apparent as a mount of plastic bags: “Keep on digging” he says, “Use these plastics for covering, we’ll be warm”. We soon realise that this dream-like playground is the reality of China’s role as the largest importer of plastic waste from first world countries such as Japan, Korea, USA and Europe. In this nation containing 1.371 billion people, there are nearly 30 towns engaged in processing waste in highly toxic environments.
The documentary opens in Tsingdao city displaying scenes of China from its harbours to its vast paddy fields to its bustling village markets. We are then lead to a colourful landscape of packaging from familiar labels such as Flora Active Margarine, McDonalds, DHL. “I don’t have other skills, only dirty works like this so I can support my family, make more money give them better lives”.
Chinese director, Jiu-Liang Wang, introduces us to Kun, a materialistic, 20-something-year-old who runs the plastic factory with his wife. We also meet Peng, an underpaid employee at the factory who works there with his wife, son, and daughter, Yi Jie — An 11-year-old girl who dreams of attending school but is denied education due to the costs of working and living.
Despite Wang’s Plastic China raising important questions surrounding this industry in China, it falls short of answering these questions. We are shown children growing up amongst piles of plastic rubbish, catching fish from black coloured polluted water and eating them for dinner. A woman going into labour and giving birth to her newborn next to stacks of waste. Kun states he could feel tumours in his backside most likely resulted from exposure to toxic-chemicals and is too afraid to have them checked. The health conditions of those working in the waste industry are obviously at stake, but this is merely hinted at in the documentary.
It becomes even more ironic when during a visit Kun’s family takes to Tiananmen Square, they are seen to celebrate in front of a portrait of Mao Zedong, reading out a large slogan promising the Chinese population “All people will have a well-off life. A life that we could earn enough and live comfortably”. To be very honest, at times the up-close and personal documentation of the lives of two Chinese families felt trivialised by Wang, the filmography featuring the “aesthetics” of the landscape felt like it belonged to an art installation more than a documentary. Despite lacking substance, Plastic Waste does not fail to expose to us to the harsh realities of environmental degradation perpetuated by the waste we produce in everyday life.
Catch this at the Doc Edge Festival 2017 in Wellington on Monday 15th and Sunday 21st of May, and in Auckland on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th of May. You can book here.