Monday, July 5, 2010

The Tribulations of Chinese Rural Life: Huang Mei's The Village Elementary

While many things have improved in the People's Republic since the death of Mao in 1976, access to public education for the poor isn't one of them. I recently saw The Village Elementary, a documentary by Huang Mei, that delves into this issue with a portrait of life in a tiny village primary school in Gansu Province, west China. This arid, mountainous region features breathtaking  scenery, but harbours villages so impoverished its hard to believe they exist in the same nation as the glittering skylines of modern cities like Shanghai and Beijing.

Money, or the lack thereof, is the constant in Huang Mei's film, that lends every scene an air of quiet desperation. The opening scene sees the middle-aged principal sitting in his dingy office explaining to camera how difficult it is to keep the school running on the miniscule budget allocated by authorities. The funding is so little, he claims, they can barely cover the electricity bills, let alone the cost of much-needed infrastructure like heating. Outside students exercise in the school's dusty yard, a bare patch of yellow earth carved into the side of a mountain. Back inside the teachers discuss the risk of coming rain – the buildings are not stable and precipitation brings the threat of collapse.

We meet a permanent teacher who earns RMB 460 a month (around USD 67 at the current exchange rate), and a temporary teacher who makes an even more pitiful RMB 125 per month (around USD 18). They complain of obfuscation, buck passing and bullying by authorities when they ask for pay-rises or funding increases. “Unless a person like Hitler comes along and turns the world upside down, nothing will change,” one teacher comments drily.

Their resigned stoicism reminded me of the protesters in Zhao Liang's Petition, which I wrote about recently for RealTime. Although the teachers' situation is less desperate than that of petitioners in Beijing, they exude a similar mix of hope, frustration and resentment when they talk about their approaches to officials.

Huang Mei's style combines fly-on-the-wall observation with to-camera ruminations by the film's subjects, a pretty standard approach in Chinese documentaries of the past decade. At its best this style forges an explosive emotional bond with real-life characters, dramatising broad social issues through personalised experiences. But where Zhao Liang manages to build an extraordinary – and at times discomforting – intimacy with his subjects in Petition, Huang maintains a cool distance from the teaching staff and villagers, so we never feel emotionally involved in their plight. Amazingly, we never meet any of the school's children – they are simply a backdrop to the teachers' lives. Instead, Huang lingers with characters only peripherally linked to the school, and ends with a protracted scene of a traditional village ceremony, the meaning of which is never explained.

The result is that after two hours we are left with little more than a confused, fragmented picture of village life and the knowledge that China's countryside is still extremely poor – hardly news to any living in China. An audience outside the PRC may find the conditions in the school shocking, but as the film fails to provide any wider analysis, viewers could be forgiven for concluding this is an isolated case of localised neglect.

In reality, China's rural poverty is the result of a long standing government policy to squeeze the countryside to fund urban growth. Similarly, the nation's education budget is quite deliberately spent on elite urban educational facilities attended by the children of government workers and the nation's growing middle class. Rural folk are systematically excluded from urban schools by the hukou – or residence permit – system, which only allows Chinese people to attend public schools in their place of birth. None of this is alluded to in The Village Elementary.

 It's a shame, because the grim conditions in the school offer rich terrain for exploring the divisions running through contemporary China, between city and country, rich and poor, young and old. As with many recent Chinese features, The Village Elementary makes the mistake of simply placing misery on screen without any attempt to explore what the characters' situation means. Poverty and aimlessness exist everywhere, but Huang Mei's film disappointingly fails to illuminate the particular combination of social, political and geographic factors that have seen much of China's interior languish in poverty, even as the nation's coastal regions have raced headlong into the 21st century.

The Village Elementary screened on 20 June 2010, at Trainpostting Cafe, Fangjia 46, Fangjia Hutong, Dongcheng, Beijing.

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