J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Doc Fortnight ’14: Mothers

Granted, motherhood is an endeavor that always requires courage and conviction, but the level exhibited by Chinese mothers resisting mandated sterilization is something else entirely. Documentarian Xu Huijing captured the local cadres of provincial Ma village going about their shocking business in his very personal expose, Mothers (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s Documentary Fortnight at MoMA.

As Xu explains in his brief opening narration, he would not be here today if the Communist Party had had its way. He was a second child conceived in the fourth year of the One Child campaign. Like his mother, Rong-rong has already had a second child and paid a hefty fine as a result. She has also paid several subsequent fines for not consenting to mandatory sterilization.

Zhang Qing-mei, Ma’s “director of women’s care,” and thug-turned village deputy Zhang Guo-hong can no longer tolerate her disobedience. They have to meet the quota of fourteen sterilizations handed down from high. The problem is Ma is running out of fertile women. To make matters worse, women who voluntarily request such a procedure do not count towards the quota. Shamelessly, in full view of Xu’s camera, Deputy Zhang will brazenly harass Rong-rong’s grandmother and direct the local school to expel her children to put pressure on the fugitive mother.

The manner in which the Zhangs conduct “family planning” will make most jaws drop, but the real kicker comes when they complain about the village’s dwindling number of marriages and children enrolled in the local school. Hello McFly, that’s what happens when you sterilize everyone. Their village is slowly dying, yet they double-down on the very policies so obviously responsible.

Mothers clocks in just short of seventy minutes, but it is loaded with incendiary moments. Frankly, it brings to mind A Handmaid’s Tale, even including the dystopian religious fervor, courtesy of Zhang Qing-mei, who bizarrely likens Mao Zedong to a saint and a divine emperor. The mind reels.

Recently, the Communist government has promised some flexibility in One Child enforcement, but broad reforms still seem unlikely (just ask the great filmmaker Zhang Yimou). In any event, the policy has already wrought tremendous emotional damage that will reverberate for decades. You can see it clearly in Mothers. A bold work of cinematic journalism and a gripping human interest story, Mothers is highly recommended when it screens Monday (2/24) and Thursday (2/27) with Leslie Tai The Private Life of Fenfen (another worthy selection) during MoMA’s 2014 Doc Fortnight.

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