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Jia Zhang-Ke and the Chinese Communist Revolution

On October 1st, 2019, the Chinese Communist Revolution turned 70 years old. The period transformed a formerly feudal country into the great economic power of the 21st century that is now concretely threatening American imperialism.

To reflect on the Chinese revolutionary path, director Jia Zhang-Ke directed the documentary Swimming out Till the Sea Turns Blue (Yi zhi you dao hai shui bian lan), one of the highlights of the 44th. São Paulo International Film Festival 2020.

The film begins at a literary gathering that brought together Chinese writers and academics in a village in the Shanxi province in May 2019. The documentary is not about this meeting, but the memories of four generations of writers.

The stories are told through interviews with descendants of the late writer-activist Ma Feng and the testimonies of three writers active today: Jia Pingwa (born in the 1950s), Yu Hua (born in the 1960s), and Liang Hong (born in the 1970s). They recount their own lives and literary careers, which allows the film to weave a story of 70 years of the Chinese Revolution from their personal experiences.

"My main interest in the film is not simply to reveal broader socio-political developments but to understand how these changes have affected individuals. Individual experiences, especially detailed descriptions of individual memories, are crucial to understanding the story. Only exploring them can I feel that I made inroads into history," explained the director in the official press release.

About the path to making the film, he commented:

“After making Dong (2006, about the painter Liu Xiaodong) and Useless (2007, about the fashion designer Ma Ke), I wanted to make a documentary about Chinese writers. It is not that I have a thing about trilogies. It’s more that, as a reader, I’ve always had great respect for the writers who strive to keep abreast of the fast-changing world, sometimes under extremely difficult circumstances. When I discovered that a village in my native province Shanxi was host to a major literary festival, I wanted to see it for myself. (The place is named Jia Family Village, but it has no direct connection with my own family.)"

The film is divided in 18 "chapters", with titles such as "eating", "the harvest", "the father", "the mother", "the son", "the disease", etc. About this structure, Jia Zhang-Ke explained:

“Our starting point was to film at the festival, and we soon realized that we were experiencing not only a journey in contemporary Chinese literature but also a journey into the spiritual history of the Chinese people. Beyond the literary talk, an unexpected new protagonist for the film somehow appeared: the peasantry who inhabit China’s vast hinterlands. The writers in the film tell their own stories, the kind of stories that weigh on the minds of most Chinese people. I wanted the images to look dignified, almost sculptural, and the 18 chapters to be structured as casually as flowing clouds. The people in this country are living lives like rivers leading to the sea, traveling with heavy loads, towards somewhere blue and clear in the distance. Their journeys are very similar, but each footprint deserves to be remembered.”

The importance of the film in this context is exemplary. The history of these last 70 years is the history of the daily struggles of the people who make and who made the Revolution as human beings in concrete social situations. From a childhood in poverty to the imprisonment of a father, from fighting a war to the possibility of entering university. The difference between country life and city life still defines many Chinese. Past and present communicate in memories and images.

Jia Zhang-Ke contextualized this reflection:

“The lives and writings of the four featured authors parallel 70 years of contemporary China's history since 1949. The first is the late Ma Feng, whose most creative period was the 17 years before the Cultural Revolution – the time known as “the period of socialist construction” in China. His writing was linked to dramatic social reforms. Revolutionary literature and art are unavoidable subjects when it comes to constructing a spiritual portrait of modern China. Collectivism in the 1950s solved some problems and caused new ones. This is the historical starting point for understanding our current social structure and our contemporary literature.”

“The other three writers saw in the film span the years since. Jia Pingwa, born in the 1950s, focuses on the “Cultural Revolution” and its aftermath (ie, the 1960s and 1970s), a time full of trauma and helplessness. Yu Hua, born in 1960, is the third writer on the film. His experiences date back to the 1980s, a period of “reform and opening up” in China when there was a social melt l and individualism revived. The fourth writer, Liang Hong, is a woman born in the late 1970s. Her account coincides with the present. I want to highlight the last person featured in the film, the 14-year-old son of Liang Hong. His interest and confusion about your family history allow me to peek into the spirit world of the next generation.”

I believe that when referring to the “spiritual world of the next generation”, he is using an expression similar to a concept by Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”, in other words, a certain capacity or sensitivity to capture the culture. Liang Hong resembles a Western boy: cell phone, branded headphones, he likes physics and playing video games.

Sitting on the banks of a stranded river, which seems to be drying up, the proposed question is: where is the Chinese Revolution going? When the mother starts to teach her the dialect of her old village, we realize that there is a job to be done: to teach the new generations so that they do not lose contact with their own history and with history.

The film is a breath of fresh air in a world of Western sensibility bending to the perpetual and fragmentary never-ending now of late capitalism. Celebrating culture and history from its writers is also to show that literature is the safeguard of the spirit of a people. Making history the reason for such a sensitive film is a point outside the curve in the mediocre media debate that taunts us daily.

Finally, seeing Chinese elderly people eating at a community center at the beginning of the film leaves a message for the former B of the BRICS: What have the last 70 years of capitalism done for Brazil and what will they do in the next?


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