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From the city to the villages!

Xu Hongjie’s achingly beautiful film On the Rim of the Sky traces the texture of China’s everyday life, at the borders of modernization. At the Open City Documentary Festival on 21 June 2015.

En Liang Khong
14 June 2015

“The period of ‘from the city to the villages’, of the city leading the village, has now begun.” Mao Zedong, 1949.

Xu Hongjie, On the Rim of the Sky, 2014. All rights reserved.

Xu Hongjie, On the Rim of the Sky, 2014. All rights reserved.Gulu perches on a remote cliff top in China’s Sichuan province. Arriving with a camera, Xu Hongjie recorded the final decline of Gulu’s village school, the struggles of Shen – the teacher there since 1982 – and the sense of loss running through the community. Her intense, controlled shots of the natural world continually interrupt the slow rhythms of village life. As the rain descends, the school is often shrouded in cloud – transforming it into the school “on the rim of the sky”, as Shen explains.

And what clouds! Xu’s slow, tender pan renders them scarlet-tinged, streaked across the sky in Turneresque smears. These static frames, brushed with merely ambient sound, are composed in radiant ignition. The sky becomes one of Xu’s characters, and beneath, she reflects on what happens on the borders of modernization. Xu draws out the small narratives, as they trickle across the great social transformation of post-Mao China.

This is an imaginary that draws on both China’s fifth and sixth generation film-makers: the former’s fantastical, pristine landscapes, and the latter’s deployment of allegorical fragments. Xu’s chamber piece ostensibly settles on the growing rift between the village teacher Shen, and the newcomer Bao, a voluntary teacher from Wuhan, who enthuses about the rural ‘purity’ he has discovered. “We always say that Gulu is behind the times and needs help,” he argues. “But is Gulu not even more progressive and free?” The young revolutionary, who keeps a small library of Kerouac and Mao, talks about Gulu as an isolated world where inhabitants lead a simple, pastoral existence – a backwardness incapable of autonomous participation.

The swirling atmosphere of multiple agendas and ulterior motives swiftly breaks into outright resentment. “The university graduates ask, why should they teach the lower grades? But their teaching methods are improvised”, teacher Shen complains bitterly. “Their university degrees make them behave arrogantly”. In turn, Bao casts suspicion over Shen’s handling of funds donated to the school, especially in light of a new house he is building for himself on the lower slopes.

Bao is caught between traversing the rural landscape as if a man awakened from a dream, while at the same time loudly declaring that the village children must be taught at the Central School. Ultimately, Bao enthuses, they can “work in the big cities, and settle there,” parroting the Party’s own confidence that “urbanization is…the natural historical process of the rural population concentrating in cities. It is the objective tendency of the development of humankind, and it is an important symbol of national modernization.” The Party’s calls for transforming rural residents into urban citizens grew ever more shrill in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

But beyond the dreams of this deranged set of Maoist biopolitics, there is no Utopia. And shimmering behind Xu’s parable is a Chinese educational system marked by violent segregation. The Party’s recent success story hinges on the deployment of the labour power of 250 million migrant workers, put to work across the nation’s cities. But the reproductive, educational and health costs of this workforce are still borne by the countryside – a kind of social apartheid, as Chinese new leftists damningly describe it.

I spent one winter afternoon in Beijing wandering through a dilapidated migrant school on the far outskirts of the city, set up to educate the children of labourers from rural Sichuan. But while the provision in the cities is pitiful, the departure of an entire migrant working class from the countryside has ravaged families, and hollowed out any prospect of a good education in rural China.

It was in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, where Shen “saw a metropolis for the first time in my life.” When juxtaposing the village and strangers, between the rush of Wuhan city life and Gulu high up on the cliffs, Xu attempts to deconstruct the solidarity of community, and document China’s incredible shifts across its physical and social vistas. The dilemmas facing the village reflect the wider dynamics across the country.

Xu Hongjie, On the Rim of the Sky, 2014. All rights reserved.

Xu Hongjie, On the Rim of the Sky, 2014. All rights reserved.Shen rages that the volunteers “are kicking me out”. A full-scale argument soon erupts. “The school is not yours! It belongs to the Central School and the State,” the assistants snap back. “Before the school was in the darkness, but now it is turning to the light!” The exchange is a particularly fitting example of Xu’s rendering of a community in disintegration.

China has provided a surface for an energetic, independent documentary movement, which emerged in the late 1980s and has turned to both fragmented urban landscapes and deep rural settings to expose the disparities of China’s social sphere. The camera allows Xu to cut deep into Gulu village, to silently observe the story that unfolds, and to return again and again to its absences and extinctions.

And within, Xu’s filmic impulse finds some glorious tableaus. One evening, she brings her tentative camerawork into an intimate ritual gathering, and beckons us forward, as a villager drives himself into a spiritual frenzy: “beating the drum brings everything into order. The demons are driven away.” We lean closer, and the ritual is complete. This is non-interventionist ‘direct cinema’, as pioneered by Frederick Wiseman, at its best: the discarding of editorial intrusion, the slow unfurling of life, as a visual strategy.

Recent years have seen a sizeable body of film and literature devoted to the Chinese elites’ concern for rural inhabitants. Bao and his university-educated peers gather the villagers by night, in order to draw up a letter accusing Shen of embezzlement. “Thus justice will return to the masses”, he approvingly observes. Bao dances between concern for rebuilding the school, attempting to salvage the debris, as he sees it, and expressing his deep disappointment in the villagers’ sense of community.

Months later, Xu returns to Sichuan to find Shen transferred to a school in Wusihe, where he no longer teaches, but cooks and cleans for the children. The village school itself lies abandoned. Xu’s camera continues running, as the emptied building is submerged in the dying light. The villagers of Gulu may do as they will amidst the turbulence of China’s twenty-first century. But at the heart of On the Rim of the Sky is the question of how elites see themselves in the fast-running waters of China’s socialist neoliberalism.

On the Rim of the Sky has its UK premiere at the Open City Documentary Festival on 21 June 2015.

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