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Low-budget films take root among farm folk in China

Popular, unpolished dramas employ peasants as actors and reflect their daily challenges.

January 28, 2007|Audra Ang | Associated Press Writer

JINGDEZHEN, CHINA — The plot: a morality tale about a teenage girl who lies to her parents to get money for the cellphone she covets. The setting: a small town in central China. The director and actors: local vegetable farmers.

"Father, I Should Not Lie to You," a two-part, 72-minute drama, has joined the ranks of a revolutionary concept in Chinese film-making -- movies about, for and by peasants.

Despite their unpolished look and the wide availability of cheap, pirated Hollywood blockbusters on DVD, these low-budget, high-drama movies are taking root among their natural -- and sizable -- audience of China's 800 million rural residents.

"Most of the films shown in China are not related to the lives of the farmers. I decided to make one that filled that gap," said Xu Mingwen, the director of "Father," which aired recently on a TV station in the heartland province of Hunan.

The farmer film industry is still too small for there to be official figures on how many titles are produced a year. Finished products often go direct to DVD or are distributed for free so farmers can watch them in small screening rooms or at home in their villages.

Their themes mainly reflect the challenges farmers face in a once mainly agricultural society that is rushing headlong into an urban, industrial 21st century future: the lure of cities, the perils of migration and the temptations of capitalist consumer culture.

"I found that some students like expensive items such as mobile phones, which is not very good. So I decided to shoot a film with an aim to educate them," said Xu, a 42-year-old vegetable farmer who runs a small studio that specializes in making videos of weddings.

The peasant filmmakers "want to find a channel to speak to the public who don't know about their situation," said Wu Wenguang, a documentary filmmaker who led a project in which 10 farmers filmed their villages' local elections.

"This is a way for them to show this for the first time," he said. "It's fresh. It's interesting."

The farmer-film genre is another sign of the social changes wrought by nearly three decades of free-market reforms. For most of China's storied 3,000-year-old history, peasants were a passive force in a culture dominated and defined by Confucian scholars. After Mao's revolution, political commissars defined depictions of rural society.

Now farmers increasingly have the means and time to tell their own stories.

"Look at how far we've progressed -- farmers can now make films," said Li Meiying, an energetic 52-year-old who often plays the role of "woman in crowd" in movies directed by Zhou Yuanqiang, a pioneer in the peasant film movement.

"We're more free. Our standard of life has improved," Li said. "When I was little, we did not even have shoes."

Zhou is a one-man movie industry. Since 1992, he has been writing, directing, taping and editing films and TV series depicting the life of Chinese peasants in ancient, revolutionary and modern times.

As a teenager, Zhou lent books and organized sports games for fellow peasants as they farmed the fields on the outskirts of Jingdezhen, a city in the southern province of Jiangxi that has for centuries been known for its delicate porcelain. Zhou said he "saw people scramble for picture books" and realized how starved everyone was for culture.

In 1980, he joined the city's cultural bureau and began showing videotapes of kung fu and military exercises to farmers. A decade later, he began shooting documentary histories of the area. Then a change of topic occurred to him.

"I also realized farmers lacked cultural activities of their own," he said.

"I wanted to reflect their lives by helping them shoot a film about themselves."

Zhou, who has a cigarette-roughened voice and is always moving unless he's behind a camera, works out of a cluttered office with props and his equipment. He edits his tapes on a Panasonic VCR and an old Rowa color TV set. His well-used Sony camcorder with a flip-out screen and attached microphone was a gift from local officials who saw the potential of his work.

His latest endeavor, the revolutionary drama "To Conquer Shanfeng Town"-- a melodrama about the communist revolution -- features a smiling, sunburned squad of farmers who took their roles for free.

"They love seeing themselves on film," said Zhou.

On the set in the muggy hills outside of Jingdezhen, Zhou shoots take after take as sweat trickles down his forehead. A soldier answers his cellphone while the camera is running and someone else ignores a cue to enter despite yells from cast-mates. In the shade, actors smoke as they wait to recite their lines. A stray yellow dog wanders lazily through several scenes.

"I'm not cultured. I haven't had much of an education," said Tong Maomao, a 66-year-old farmer whose craggy face, arched eyebrows and yellowed eyes make him the perennial villain in Zhou's films. "Now that I'm acting, I can say I have a little culture."

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