When it comes to illustrating the principle of unintended consequences, the “Great Sparrow Campaign” launched during the Great Leap Forward is tragically apt. Mao’s idea was to increase crop yields by exterminating sparrows, because they were “seed thieves.” Of course, most school children could have told you what else sparrows eat. A young boy and girl hope to capture the last surviving sparrow seen around their rural community, but they will receive a bitter lesson in Maoist theory and practice for their efforts in Wenting Deng Fisher & Luke Charles Fisher’s short film Empty Skies, which screens tomorrow as part of the programming of the American Pavilion at Cannes.
Li already understands life can be hard. After the death of his father, a rather bourgeoisie painter, he is now in the care of his loving grandmother. Alas, he is deeply concerned about the elderly woman’s, especially given their regular diet of tree bark soup. On the other hand, Hong’s parents are presumably privileged cadres, because she sees no irony in the slogans she recites. When Li meets the young girl, she is chasing after the last sparrow reportedly seen in their vicinity, for the sake of Maoist glory. That is not very motivating to Li, but the promise of extra rations convinces him to help Hong hunt her prey. However, killing a sparrow is a much different proposition than more legitimate pests, like rats or roaches.
It is hard to believe Mao’s war on sparrows really happened, but it did, despite the Communist Party’s subsequent efforts to erase it from the history books. The Fishers’ film is a timely reminder of how command-and-control fiats can have disastrous consequences, especially when they are primarily based on ideology. Yet, what makes Empty Skies so effective is the very personal scale of the narrative and the innocence of its main characters.
Arthur Welch is quite extraordinary as Li, who undergoes a hard coming-of-age experience during the course of the eighteen-minute film. ViviAnn Yee is similarly compelling as Hong, especially when she is suddenly forced to confront the truth of the regime, whose slogans she had taken on faith. The young co-leads are completely natural and completely without affectation on screen, but character actor Shu Lan Tuan truly anchors the film with humanistic gravitas as Li’s grandmother.
Empty Skies is a remarkably assured film that really ought to be widely screened. It powerfully depicts the human (and ornithological) cost of ideological excess, but also shows a keen understanding of children’s mindsets. Although it was shot in California, it definitely passes for rural China of the Great Leap Forward era. Very highly recommended, Empty Skies screens tomorrow (5/21), under the auspices of the American Pavilion in Cannes.