Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review - Whisper of Minqin

February 26, 2015

Whisper of MinqinChina, 2013

Wen-Ming Wang’s moving documentary Whisper of Minqin is not an unbiased film. How could it be? This is a film likely made in secret, as far away from the prying eyes of local officials as could be, and throughout the film, viewers are given clues as to why this may have been the case. There’s talk of thugs seeking to “persuade” local people not to submit formal complaints to officials in Beijing, and at one point, we’re told that someone with a great deal of power has turned off the water supply, leaving residents with fresh water only once every five days. If this is indeed the truth, it is unlikely that local government officials would be willing to speak on camera; in fact, it is much more likely that they would actively try to prevent the film from being made in the first place. Still, films such as these often feel incomplete without dissenting voices, for without the other side’s point of view, it is all too easy for a film like this one to be dismissed as having too obvious an agenda.

To make the film, Wang followed a family living in Minqin County (in China’s Gansu Province) on and off for over two years. Wang himself is originally from the region, and because of that, he has personally witnessed the effects of desertification there. (He even sent his own son away after a particularly terrible sandstorm in 1993.) During one of his trips to the area, he met a ten-year-old student named Fang Fei He, whose dreams mirrored his own at that age. Facing the camera, Fang Fei explains two of her dreams: to become a government official and to see the world. By the end of the film, she has given up one of these.

As this transformation takes place, viewers are presented with some sobering facts about the region. Here are just a few: The area has been hit by over 1,300 sandstorms, 350,000 residents have moved away, and most of the population between the ages of 20 and 35 has abandoned the region. On more than one occasion, we hear of family members who have not returned for years – not even for Chinese New Year. It is as if we are witnessing life in this region for the last time, for after the elderly have passed on and the young have departed, it’s hard to see anyone remaining here willingly.

Through archival footage and Wang’s own narration, we see what the area once was, a land replete with lush fields and an abundance of vegetation, and it is easy to see why people would have once been proud to call it home. This is in stark contrast with the barren wasteland seen in more recent footage. In fact, the situation appears to be so bad that only 5% of Minqin remains usable. Wang lays the blame for this not on climate change but on failed government initiatives over the past 65 years. This timeframe coincides with the Great Leap Forward, a time of disastrous agricultural policies that historians estimate resulted in the death of tens of millions of people. The insinuation is that past mistakes are creating present-day suffering. Again, no government official appears on camera to refute these claims.

As I watched the film, I wanted more and was frustrated by the film’s inability to provide it. I wanted to hear officials respond to charges of culpability, even if all they did was toe party lines and answer in broad generalizations. I also wanted Wang to be more of a reporter and ask follow-up questions. For example, in one scene he is told that one of the elderly men in the area is being bullied by his son. It was a revealing comment, yet Wang does not press him on it. Perhaps it is not considered culturally appropriate to do so; however, not doing so just seems journalistically negligent. Unfortunately, this is a frequent pattern. At key moments, what should be powerful and add to the tragedy of the situation comes across as half-hearted and incomplete. There are reasons for this, I know, but the film suffers as a result.

What does come across effectively is the resilience of many of the residents and their admirable determination to preserve their land for successive generations. They seem aware that the odds are stacked against them, yet there they remain – on land without water, in constant peril from both the elements and powerful entities that seek to force their relocation. “We will stay,” they repeatedly say. “Only death can drive us off our land.” The odds are against them, and they know it. They are a small group – just nine families consisting of 49 individuals; their adversaries, on the other hand, have time, money, and power on their side. In one particularly telling scene, one of the families returns to find their home in ruins. We watch as they pay their respects to their ancestors for the last time, pack up their things, and drive off into the dusty sunset, perhaps never to return. It may only be a matter of time before the rest join them.

In the end, Whisper of Minqin is moving and heartfelt, and viewers will feel for the families the film follows. After all, audiences love a David-and-Goliath story, and the film gives them a pretty good one. Director Wang doesn’t get everything right, but most of the film’s problems are understandable given the circumstances. I found myself rooting for Fang Fei and her family, as well as recognizing the signs of an ever-growing disillusionment. At critical moments, Wang focuses the camera on the faces of his film’s subjects, and their eyes all seem to be saying the same thing: “This just isn’t right.” (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars

*Whisper of Minqin is in Chinese with English subtitles.

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