Country Life

The farmers filming the realities of rural China

Text by Xu Min

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Left, Zhang Huan-Cai, 45, Shaanxidirector,“A FUTILE ELECTION”. Right, Shao Yu-Zhen (left, with Yang Jin-Xia), 55, Beijing director, “I FILM MY VILLAGE”

The Visual Documentary Project on Village-Level Democracy was started in 200 by the EU-China Training Programme on Village Governance. It handed out digital video cameras to 10 villagers, chosen from China’s rural population of 900 million, so that they could document the day-to-day operation of their villages and the minutiae of their lives. It is both an ambitious work of social documentation and an experiement in empowering some of society’s most poweless members to force the issues of transparency and democracy through the medium of film. “Behind every village filmmaker is the reality of rural life and countryside dynamics,” Wu Wen-Guang, the project’s curator and producer, says. “This is the volcano that has been sleeping for thousands of years. Its stories have always been told by outsiders” – until now.  

My name is Zhang Huan-Cai. I was born in 1960 and I turn 51 this year. My wife is Qi Hui-Fang. She is three years younger than me, and her family lives one kilometer away from mine. We met each other through a matchmaker. We had a son and a daughter after we got married. our son is 24 – he is at university and will graduate this summer. our daughter is 18 and in the 11th grade.

The living conditions of my family are ok – at least I thought so. But when my wife recently asked, “Who are you better than?”, I suddenly couldn’t say anything. I felt a little ashamed after I thought carefully about it – I am the bottom rank in my village. it seems that i’m only better than those who are disabled or jobless, and the population of my village is over 1,800.

My family owns 3,200 square metres of cropland and we plant twice a year, in the summer and the autumn. We grow mainly wheat and corn. We have busy farming seasons and slack seasons. I take care of the crops during the busy seasons. I don’t want my crops to look worse than others’, because they’ll look down on me. Keeping up appearances means a lot in the village, so I have to care about it. But my main source of income is the part-time work I do in the city. My wife used to stay at home raising pigs, while earning some extra money by making gloves. I like part-time jobs since they’re flexible and I still have time to indulge my other interests (for example, video) and take care of the crops. My longest period of part-time work was in Shenzhen; I was there for three years, from 2001 to 2004. I also work part-time in Xi’an – our village would call it “the human market” [an illegal labor market].

After I got my DV camera, the first thing I thought about shooting was the summer wheat harvest. The first video I shot was “My Wheat”, in the summer of 2005. I registered for the Visual documentary Project that winter. I had many more ideas after I joined the project. I wanted to shoot short films, like “The Old Slogans on the Wall”, “Search for Wonders in the Countryside”, “Self-Entertainment Club”, “Hawkers in the Snowstorm”, “The Part-Time Wheat Pickers”, “A Local Toll”, “An Old Man’s Story”, “Cotton-Picking in Xi Jiang”, “I’m a Pepper Picker”, etc. I’ve done around 80 short ones, as the material for my documentary.

The biggest obstacle I’ve encountered while shooting was myself. sometimes I was afraid to take out my DV, when I saw things I wanted to shoot, out of cowardice. Sometimes I was too lazy to take the camera with me, and made excuses to myself – I don’t shoot often, so it’s better to just not take it. The other difficulty was making a living. I had to make that my priority, although deep in my heart I do want to make shooting films the top of the list.

I am misunderstood sometimes. I know some villagers say about me, “He has no fucking job to do!” “He has too much free time.” “The nitpicker is coming.” “Who knows where you will sell us for money!” “You can probably make a lot of money from this.” “You’re earning your wage.” And my wife’s comments are, “Rubbish!” “Doing useless stuff.” “Selfish!” “Lazy!” “ Bite off what you can chew.” But those who are doing illegal things are really scared of my camera, and the untidiness, the messiness and some of the uncivilised behaviour in the village did decline because of my shooting.

I feel lucky right now because I’m not attracting too much attention – at least the other villagers don’t know that there is foreign media attention on me. I feel calm about it, because I think that what I deserve will come to me. My documentaries only play a supporting role in my life; they have added a bright colour to my life, and I feel I can hold my head up proudly. But someone also said to me,“Your chest is bending forward, what’s wrong with you?” it seems that it might not always be a good thing to have your head held high. I cared more about getting awards several years ago, because I thought awards meant recognition from society. But now I am more concerned about whether my films will stand the test of time, say, decades or even hundreds of years later. If people still want to watch these records of the life I saw around me, I will feel happy and honoured.

I am Shao Yu-Zhen, a housewife from a village in the rural area outside of Beijing, and I just turned 60. I have two children, a son and a daughter. My son graduated from university several years ago and has his own family already. He has a baby girl, who has just turned one year old. My daughter is a sophomore in college. I am the only one in my family who is registered as an agricultural resident. My husband was a worker, but he is retired now. We signed a contract with our village and got 6,660 square metres of cropland. We grow watermelon, cabbage, sweet potato, peanuts... The economic situation of my family is OK – after a year of hard farming, there is enough money for the family’s basic needs. Although we can’t save much, there is enough for my daughter’s tuition. We can make ends meet.

My life has been ordinary. The farm work and household chores are so heavy that I feel I can’t breathe. When I was young, my life was only for my children, for my family; I didn’t have time to read newspapers or magazines. It was easier to watch TV. For women of my age, we are satisfied as long as there’s someone who is willing to listen to us.

Some villagers came and asked me to make documentaries of their lives after I got my DV camera. I started to feel a sense of responsibility during the process of shooting. Although there was no one asking me to do this or that, I decided I wanted to keep a record of their lives. so I accepted the job, but I didn’t have a specific plan at first. Gradually, the idea came to me of shooting videos of this village every year.

We joined the workshop and started editing around the May Day holiday, which is the busiest farming season. It is understandable that my husband complained a little, but at the same time, he was the one who understood me the most; he never interfered when I went out to shoot. Difficulties and setbacks were inevitable. I was physically tired and felt so frustrated. I remember when I was shooting a short documentary on a house-builder, and the owner of the house picked a fight with me. But after he saw the film broadcast on TV, he was more understanding, and when I went to shoot again in 2009, he accepted it willingly. Now, it has become the driving force that pushes me to keep working.

I am still an ordinary villager, although it is true that I’ve attracted a lot of attention since I started shooting documentaries. I still have the same mentality about life – nothing has really changed. But, of course, I did get to know more documentary makers, and I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve been to different places – I even went to Europe. It was such an eye-opening experience and suddenly widened my vision. I started to have my own opinions on social phenomena. Through these years of study, I can feel that I have improved greatly.

My life consists of farm work and household chores, and now I have one more job – taking care of my grandchild. documentary shooting is just part of my life. When I’m holding the DV, the other villagers are comfortable enough to be themselves in front of the camera. They are already used to it. For me, the so-called non-governmental power is the voice of the ordinary people, although I’m not sure whether it really has power or not – I’m just documenting the details of their daily lives.

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Wang Wei, 28, Shandong Director, “ALLOCATION OF LAND”


My name is Wang Wei. There are five people in my family: my parents, my wife and my daughter. Our living conditions can’t be compared an urban family’s, but it is not bad at all in my village. This is because my father works in a government department and has a stable salary. I once enlisted as a soldier, but the experience was nothing special. I had a lot of free time at home and decided to leave, for a change of scenery. But once I was in the army, I realised that it was not the right place for me, so I came back home after three years.

I don’t really have any hobbies – the only thing I’m interested in is reading. But I don’t go too deep – it’s hard to get books in my village, and I can’t really afford to buy them anyways. I’ve been subscribing to Southern Weekend [Guangzhou’s weekly newspaper] for years; it’s the only one I read regularly. I don’t really watch TV since it’s full of bullshit. But my wife is a big fan of Korean soap operas, and we live in a small room, so just like secondhand smoke, I’m forced to watch TV secondhand.

When I first heard about the Visual Documentary Project on Village-Level Democracy, I was only interested in the “village-level democracy” part – I didn’t care about the “visual documentary project”. I signed up without thinking too much about it. I was bragging to my wife that although I don’t know much about the “visual”, I have an in-depth understanding of village self-governance. It might be cheeky to say so, but I think I know no less than the experts on the three rural Issues [agriculture, rural areas and peasants]. Because of the title, “village-level democracy”, I was sure I’d be picked, seeing as they were going to choose 10 people. Cheeky, huh?

I planned to shoot a video about land allocation in my village. They didn’t allocate the cropland according to state law, but according to who gave the most money to the village committee. It was more like an auction. Farming doesn’t earn us a lot of money, and all of it would have gone into the village officials’ pockets. It took us several years to kick those corrupt officials out, and we hoped the new team would take action soon. But it took them years. Laizhou city brought in a new policy that year, requiring villages to allocate land according to the state law. I thought it would happen soon, and it that would be a great topic to document. But nothing happened. By the time the land was finally allocated, in 2006, I’d lost interest and only shot a little bit of it. I still don’t have a complete plan for shooting even now. I’m just living my life day by day, and I take out the DV camera to shoot a bit whenever I’m free and in the mood for it. But for most of the time I am too busy, not to mention not in the mood. Making a living is the top priority; shooting films ranks much lower.

I am still an ordinary villager, growing my crops and raising my chickens. I feel happy when the price of chicken goes up, and I swear when the prices of fertiliser and feed do. Most often I’m swearing. I don’t have any impact on my village, and I’m not in charge of anything either. the ones who have the biggest influence in villages are always those who have the power.

I don’t think I had any specific difficulties during shooting. I remember there was one person in the village who didn’t want me to shoot him, so I didn’t. My DV was taken away by the court once, but I don’t think it was my fault. the judge was not sitting in his seat, the plaintiff and defendant were not sitting where they were supposed to be either, and there weren’t even any other members of the court. Who would call it a “court”? talking about the dignity of law being ignored and trampled on, it is those bastards from the court who are doing it. Do they have any respect for the law? There was nothing I could do after they took away my camera, but fortunately, a reporter from Shangdong TV came to visit me the next day and got it back for me. In rural areas, media reporters have far more rights and powers than ordinary villagers.

Documentaries connect me with the world outside my village, so that I won’t get lost and drown in the tedium of daily life. I showed my village to the outside world through my documentaries, and they also brought me opportunities to see the world. I’m not sure whether non-governmental power exists or not, but if it does, I figure a hidden, destructive power would be much stronger than a constructive one, especially now. There are people first, and society follows from them. I’m the one who raises the chickens, but they come from eggs. §