Sunday, May 01, 2016

Hot Docs ’16: My Land

Being 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 here), which screens during this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto.

Chen 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 shake out.

Initially 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.

In 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.

Chen, 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.

At 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.