Filmmakers look at the Great Famine in China, challenge government narrative

MIDDLEBURY — Two Chinese filmmakers will visit the Middlebury College campus this week to show their documentaries about the Great Famine in China. The public is welcome to screenings, which will include question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers.
The “Great Famine” is the Chinese famine of 1959-1961. An estimated 20 million to 40 million people died in this famine.
Mr. Wu Wenguang and Ms. Zhang Mengqi will be talking about an ongoing project to make documentary films that are oral histories of that time.
Part 1 of the college’s Documenting China’s Great Famine event will take place on Monday, Sept. 28, at Dana Auditorium. Wu’s film “Because of Hunger: Diary I” will be screened and the filmmaker will give a talk on the project. Tuesday’s Part 2 at Warner Hemicycle will feature a showing of Zhang’s “Self-Portrait: Dreaming at 47 KM” and a conversation with Zhang. Both talks/screenings start at 7 p.m. Both films are in Chinese with English subtitles.
Middlebury Chinese Department Chair Tom Moran explained that the famine would not have happened had it not been for the government’s “Great Leap Forward” policy, which took grain from people who did not have enough and prohibited starving people from leaving their villages to go elsewhere in search of food. The Great Leap Forward and the famine were two of the causes of the Cultural Revolution.
Discussion of the famine leads easily to a critique of the Communist Party’s rule, and so discussion of the famine is not common in the Chinese mainstream media, Moran explained.
Wu Wenguang, a founder of the New Documentary Film Movement in China, will show his film on the Great Famine in China and talk at Middlebury College on Monday evening.
Wu was one of eight Chinese film directors who met in an apartment in Beijing in late 1991 and agreed to pursue independence in their work in an effort dubbed China’s “New Documentary Film Movement.” He articulated the group’s position that Chinese documentary filmmakers should be free of all interference and should push for freedom of expression.
To be ideologically independent, these filmmakers decided they needed to be financially independent, which Wu acknowledges is difficult if not impossible in practice. It takes money to make a film, and that money has to come from somewhere, and the people and institutions who provide the money usually try to exercise control, and that goes both for the Chinese government and for foreign film festivals and funding organizations.
Since 1991, and in large part because of the early efforts of Wu and his colleagues, China has seen a boom in documentary filmmaking of all sorts, independent, semi-independent, and state-controlled.
“Wu Wenguang has pursued a highly moral type of filmmaking in which he endeavors to put on film history that is often suppressed, including the history of the famine and the history of the Cultural Revolution, and allow voices that are often ignored to be heard, including the voices of China’s farmers,” Moran said. He is also very aware that Chinese documentary filmmakers have to be vigilant if they are to resist and defeat censorship in China on the one hand and foreign stereotypes of China on the other hand.
Wu does not claim that his films tell the “truth” about China; instead he tries to allow as many Chinese people as possible to tell their own truths, which are various and contradictory. His films are not available for purchase in China; many of them are, in short, banned.
Born in 1956, Wu has made 10 films, including the seminal “Bumming in Beijing” (1991). In 2005 Wu co-founded the Caochangdi Workstation Art Center in Beijing, where he curated the Village Documentary Project (2005) and the ongoing Memory Project (2010), which organizes amateur filmmakers to record memories of China’s Great Famine as well as family and local histories.
At the start of Monday’s event, Wu will talk in English about the Memory Project and take questions. Wu’s talk will be followed by an 8:15 to 9:45 p.m. screening of his 2013 film “Because of Hunger: Diary I,” which documents the first two years of the Memory Project.
Zhang graduated from the Dance Academy of China Minorities University in 2008. “Self-Portrait: Dreaming at 47 KM (77 minutes) was her second film for the Memory Project. 47 KM is the name of the village where Zhang’s grandfather lives. Zhang has said, “In the summer and winter of 2010 … I went back to the village, which seems disconnected from my current life, and re-discovered and came to better understand my grandfather, the old villagers who underwent the disaster of the famine 50 years ago, as well as the village, which always perplexed and embarrassed me.”
On Tuesday, Zhang’s film will be shown first, after which the director will answer questions (in Chinese with English translation).
The event is sponsored by three departments — Chinese Language and Literature, Film and Media Culture, and Sociology and Anthropology — plus the East Asian Studies Program and Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs.

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