Berlinale 2019: A First Farewell is a poetic, often disheartening look into the lives of China’s Uyghur minorities
Albeit firmly apolitical, A First Farewell offers rare insights into the rapid homogenisation of a unique culture through imposition of language politics.
Despite two Chinese films (Zhang Yimou’s One Second and Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung’s Better Days) having been pulled out of Berlinale 2019 without convincing reasons and leaving enough room for speculations on government censorship, there was ample representation of Chinese films this year at the festival. While the gay drama A Dog Barking at the Moon by Xiang Zi won the Teddy Jury award, actors Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun both scooped up a Silver Bear each for best actress and actorrespectively for their performances in Di jiu tian chang (So Long, My Son) directed by Wang Xiaoshuai.
Close on the heels of these successes, A First Farewell’s win improved the tally of awards, and provided a boost to the filmmakers in a country with limited creative freedom. A First Farewell is the debut feature of female director Wang Lina and in the Grand Prix of the Generation Kplus category, it picked up the International Jury for Best Film. The jury called it, “a poetic and intimate film,” that provides, “insight into the changing relations within two families living in a culture caught between traditional and modern perspectives.”
Wang Lina dedicates the movie to her village Shaya in the Xinjiang province where she grew up and which is home to the Uyghur minorities. The timing of the movie acquires significance since China is facing international criticism after it was discovered that Uyghurs are being sent to re-education camps to integrate with mainland China. Set in the deep northwestern China in an unnamed village surrounded by cotton fields, trees and a desert, A First Farewell is a quiet exploration of marginalisation and a rapid loss of cultural identity told in the backdrop of two children whose lives are caught up in the melee.
The sprightly do-gooder Isa shoulders multiple responsibilities — from feeding the cattle in his house to cleaning the barn to providing care for his mentally ill mother. Burdened down by these responsibilities and deprived of time, simple pleasures evade him, like practicing football with his friends.
Kalbinur, his friend, on the other hand, is from a cotton-picking farmer’s family whose mother is concerned because of her poor Mandarin scores and wants to send Kalbinur to the city to a better school. Domestic migration to improve socio-economic status is a running theme in the movie. Kalbinur’s father, however, is reluctant because his father (Kalbinur’s grandfather) is still living in the village and he has the responsibility of taking care of him until he dies.
The brilliant Isa Yasan (Isa) and Kalbinur Rahmati (Kalbinur) are quite unselfconscious in front of the camera and elevate the slice-of-life experience the movie seemingly portrays. Same goes for the other actors who make it seem effortless in their portrayal of what could be their real lives (what perhaps is). Li Yong’s cinematography and melancholic visuals bring to screen a part of the world rarely seen in any capacity.
The underlying tensions of displacement are peppered throughout the movie – at one point in the background, a young man is beseeching his father to let him go to the city and the father refuses saying there’s no one to take care of him after the son leaves. The importance of learning Mandarin to become employable is another topic and the brutal school system that seems to punish children through humiliation is portrayed in heartbreaking detail.
“Do you go out and pick cotton all day, every day? Do you ever ask your children if they have homework?,” an angry Mandarin teacher chastises the parents in a parents-teacher meet. After scoring poor marks in Mandarin, Kalbinur gets chastised in front of the whole meet that prompts her to break down in tears.
The quest to get better at Mandarin and the need for a new school splits Isa and Kalbinur’s friendship. “The most important thing is Mandarin,” Isa says as a way of convincing to a sad Kalbinur of her eventual departure.
Growing up in an insular province as they are, Isa and Kalbinur are nevertheless not too far from being integrating into the mainstream Chinese culture. “When I grow up, I’ll become the best cadre in the protection brigade,” Isa says at one point to Kalbinur. In a passing scene, the camera hovers over a big poster in the school, with a smiling Xi Jinping surrounded by school children. In another scene, the movie touches upon the subtle indoctrination imposed upon the children — a chalk-drawn hammer and sickle golden and shining with stars is shown on the blackboard of a class.
Arrestingly atmospheric and subtly told, the movie is a visual document of the slow erosion of the Uyghur community and their unique ways of life. Operating within the heavily restricted confines of her creative freedom, the director offers a glimpse of the Uyghurs in China whose lives are under siege. Albeit firmly apolitical, A First Farewell offers rare insights into the rapid homogenisation of a unique culture through imposition of language politics.
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