Venice 2007: Umbrella
“Umbrella” is a scathing documentary on modern-day China, where an agrarian economy is fast translating into frightening sweatshop commercial activity. What does this mean? Director Du Haibin, with a number of documentaries to his credit, including “Along the Railway” (2000) and “Stone Mountain” (2006), tells us through a series of visuals how farmlands are being taken over to set up factories and economic zones. Those lucky few farmers who have been compensated set up manufacturing units that help them amass wealth quickly. These nouveaux rich lead opulent life styles, which bear little resemblance to their earlier farming days marked by frugality. There is one scene in a swanky shopping mall where a woman farmhand-turned-shopkeeper is discussing her choice of cars. She finally settles for an Audi telling her friends that she would go in for a BMW a year later. This is present-day Chinese Communism for you, where economic and social disparities are growing quickly ready to strike and destroy communal fabric and harmony, and Haibin’s work will probably run only in festivals, given the poor distribution and exhibition for documentaries in commercial theatres.
The film opens with a huge sweat-shop where hundreds of workers make umbrellas, and Haibin captures not just the production intricacies right from cutting the cloth to constructing the frame and folding it up into neat portables, but also the greed and desperation. For every umbrella that is sold in an upmarket mall in Shanghai or Beijing for a fancy price, the men and women behind the actual production are paid a pittance. And they are seduced to stay on by offer of higher wages in return for higher productivity, an extremely punishing proposition. Wage increases are also given to a worker when he brings more men to keep the assembly line moving without a break.
What is of greater consequence and concern is the migration of farmers towards urban centres, pushed into doing so by vanishing farmlands and comparatively attractive salaries offered by sweatshops. The fields that still survive are cultivated by women, elderly people ad even children, and the documentary pans across a horrible drought, barren land, dying village markets and jobless old men and women. Haibin contrasts this with the pulsating city life, and says that there is little connection between rural and urban China. The countryside is “separate world”, the farmer a broken man.
The documentary also takes a dig at higher education. Most people go to college, and their parents who are often farmers are trapped in a financial squeeze. All this means a dangerous transformation from an essentially farming nation into a seemingly prosperous industrial State. The documentary disturbs us with one final question: where is the way out for rural China?
(Webposted September 19 2007)