an urban share-cropper sounds like a hard life, but Chen Jun muddled through
until the village council and their cronies tried to force him off his leased
land. However, Chen was not just a legally disenfranchised farmer. He remains
an outspoken advocate for migrant workers’ rights. Chen and his wife Li Xiofeng
will battle for justice, relying only on video cameras, the internet, and raw
grit. Fan Jian documents their unfair fight in My Land (trailer
which screens during this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.
and the farmers working the small stretch of land on the outskirts of Beijing
were never in arrears to anyone, but that did not stop the village council from
appropriating their land mid-lease. They offered a pittance in compensation,
because none of the farmers were Beijing residents and therefore lack legal
standing. Although everyone vows to resist, Chen and Li know right from the start
they will be the only serious holdouts, which is indeed precisely how things
the council and their developer cronies resort to crude physical harassment.
Chen and Li frequently call in the crooked cops, who simply lecture the
migrant-activists not to be “difficult.” Their power and water are cut, even
though the couple kept current on their bills. Eventually, the eviction process
evolves into a long term siege. Of course, it is not just Chen and Li, living
and farming as best they can, under extreme conditions. They also have Chen’s
parents and their little girl Niu-niu living with them.
terms of the pure moral outrage it inspires, My Land ranks up there with Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow, which also screens at Hot Docs. In both films, we
essentially watch a struggle between the lawless and the just, the privileged versus
the marginalized, the thuggish menacing the not-so meek. Each film is a
riveting, acutely personal look at social iniquity and systemic corruption in contemporary
China, but Sparrow is a smoother,
tighter narrative arc, probably because Fan shotguns several years into a
laudably manageable eighty-one-minute cut.
Li, and Niu-niu are hugely sympathetic figures. They are far from perfect, but
their flaws and self-doubts make their courage even more heroic. It is also
enormously poignant to watch Niu-niu grow up amid such tough times. They all
deserve better from their country, especially Niu-niu.
various times, Li and Chen serve as co-cinematographers, documenting their
stand-offs with hired muscle in real time. In fact, those cameras might have
been the only thing that saved them from grievous bodily harm. Fan also
deserves tremendous credit for standing his ground during a number of contentious
scenes. This is gutsy filmmaking all around.
Tragically, the subject matter—abused and
dispossessed Chinese migrant workers—is not so novel anymore. However, the
visceral personal nature of Fan’s film and the nakedly belligerent criminal conspiracy
it captures are so immediately compelling, it is easy to distinguish My Land from the field. Very highly
recommended, it screens Monday (5/2), Wednesday (5/4), and Saturday (5/7) and
the even more urgently recommended Hooligan
Sparrow screens again this Friday (5/6), as part of Hot Docs ’16.
Labels: China, Chinese Cinema, Documentary, Hot Docs '16