BY ANNABELLE JARRETT
“A First Farewell” follows the story of two Uyghur Muslim children, close friends Isa and Kalbinur, growing up in a small village bordering the desert in China’s restive border region of Xinjiang – and being forced to bid it farewell.
Both grapple with challenges in their lives: Isa’s mother is disabled and requires his close care and attention. When she goes missing, his father decides to place her into a care facility. Meanwhile, Kalbinur’s poor Mandarin grades are getting her into trouble academically. As she continues to struggle, her parents decide to leave the village and enrol her into a different school.
A directorial debut by Han-Chinese filmmaker Wang Lina, the movie is one of few Chinese films set in Xinjiang and depicting Uyghur experiences to come out in recent years. It was released in 2019 amid an escalation of the ongoing security crackdown on ethnic minority Uyghur muslims in Xinjiang – whom Chinese authorities blame for inciting separatism and violence – that have turned the region into a surveillance state over the past decade and sparked global outrage.
In such a context, portrayals of Uyghurs and Xinjiang in popular media inevitably take on a political dimension. The role of film in conforming to and disseminating state messages in China has been well documented. The box office success in recent years of films like “Wolf Warrior 2” and “The Wandering Earth” have heralded a new era of Chinese nationalism on the silver screen.
Depictions of Xinjiang constitute an important part of this state messaging. China’s western region has long held a fascination in the popular imagination of Chinese audiences, spanning back as far as the 16th century novel “Journey to the West.” Many popular Chinese wuxia (martial artists) and action films have been set in Xinjiang, including the 2020 Disney live action film “Mulan.”
In the face of mounting international condemnation over the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the state has ramped up its production of positive messaging in recent months. Among their latest efforts is musical film “The Wings of Songs,” released in cinemas in April 2021. The film depicts a happy and peaceful Xinjiang lifestyle – full of tropes of Uyghurs in native dress singing and dancing alongside other ethnic minorities – and was widely denounced as propaganda among critics.
For Elise Anderson, Senior Program Officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project based in Washington DC, the pressure put upon directors operating within the Chinese political context requires a certain level of pragmatism. “Anyone who creates anything thinks: there are some things I have to do so this gets through censors and the film can see the light of day,” Anderson said.
An uneasy depiction of childhood
In “A First Farewell,” the two Uyghur protagonists spend much of the film playing and enjoying life in their village together. Both children help their parents with farming and livestock, borrow each other’s animals and make up games together. Wang’s depiction of childhood is warm and genuine, with many heartfelt moments.
In focusing on the perspectives of Isa and Kalbinur, Wang is able to impart a dreamlike quality onto the film, sifting the plot and timeframe through the eyes of children. Her soft aesthetic has invited comparisons with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose film Taste of Cherry was cited by Wang as a leading inspiration on her filmmaking. Many of Kiarostami’s films also share a similar landscape to “A First Farewell,” set in and near villages bordering the Iranian desert.
For Anderson, however, the film’s focus on the children’s perspective is particularly unsettling in light of the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing campaign to forcibly assimilate children through various schemes, such as education initiatives and boarding school programs.
“The situation for children has grown worse since 2017 in particular, which is when the mass internment drive and mass internment campaign began. The state started rapidly expanded its construction of orphanages and boarding schools, and the line between them is not always clear,” Anderson said. “What do you do with children whose parents are in an internment camp? What do you do with children who don’t have anyone in their immediate family to look after them?”
Wang shot the film over four years, living closely with the actors and their families. In this sense, the film at times blurs the line between reality and fiction, capturing real moments between family members or real reactions to scenarios she has constructed.
In one scene, Kalbinur is singled out by her teacher in front of the class for her poor grades and is reduced to tears. Her response in this moment is genuine, having been led to believe by Wang and the crew that this is a genuine scolding. The choice to construct this moment by Wang has been described by critics as “discomfiting.” This line between reality and fiction is one that underpins the entire film in its depiction of life in Xinjiang.
The problematic portrayal of Uyghurs
There are two dominant forms of stereotypes about Uyghurs in popular media both in China and abroad. The first include those that are outright negative, portraying Uyghurs as thieves or, increasingly in the wake of the September 11 attack in the US, as terrorists. The second, although no less harmful, is much more insidious. It is an exoticisation of Uyghurs and life in Xinjiang that lies in “a consumption of a destination,” Anderson said.
Nury Turkel, an Uyghur-American lawyer and Hudson Institute senior fellow, rejects these tropes in an interview with The New York Times: “The notion that Uyghurs can sing and dance so therefore there is no genocide – that’s just not going to work. Genocide can take place in any beautiful place,” Turkel said.
It is clear that Wang’s film does not conform to this first form of negative stereotyping. The extent to which “A First Farewell” furthers more insidious forms of exoticisation and othering, however, is harder to determine.
On one hand, Wang gives an agency to her characters that many other film depictions of Uyghurs lack. Their troubles are real, and many of them are pertinent to the social context of contemporary China, such as the challenges of parenting while being employed as a rural migrant worker in another province for months at a time. On the other, the film does use representations of its Uyghur characters that have been criticised as tropes when seen on film and television. These include a focus on the cultural acts of singing and dancing, and the omission of religious worship and practices.
One of the most striking parts of the film is its depiction of Kalbinur’s struggle to learn Mandarin. The targeting of indigenous languages is another key tool in the state’s attempt to exert its control in Xinjiang. Increasingly, fluency in Mandarin is necessary to access many types of employment and other opportunities in Xinjiang and other cities. Bilingual schools, in which students speak both Mandarin and Uyghur, are now common throughout the region.
“This is a tool of gradually phasing Uyghur out of any place of prominence and reducing it to a token. Ultimately most paths lead towards native level fluency in Mandarin for Uyghur children now,” Anderson explains. “It might take only a generation or two to functionally endanger a language that is still currently spoken in some form or another by most of the people.”
Anderson describes the decision faced by many parents over which language to encourage their child to learn – the decision facing Kulbinar’s parents in the film – as a “false choice” between cultural identity and social mobility. It is one faced by not only Uyghurs, but also Kazakhs, Tibetans, Mongolians and other ethnic minorities in China.
Grappling with privilege and positionality
Ultimately, understanding Wang’s position within the film comes down to a question of power relations. Wang has spoken out about growing up near the Taklamakan Desert in Southwest Xinjiang, and how she based the film in part on her childhood experiences. However, being Han Chinese – the dominant ethnic group in China – separates her from the lived experiences of Uyghurs.
For Anderson, a white American and recipient of the prestigious Fulbright scholarship, similar questions came up when she moved to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to research Uyghur music. “These issues of power relations were very much present there,” she said.
Creators should ask themselves whether they’re contributing to structures of oppression, and if so, what they can do to combat this. Art in and of itself can, and often is, a form of gesture or defiance that can serve this purpose, she added.
“An outsider’s gaze is necessarily going to be limited,” Anderson says. “But then when you’re also dealing with an outsider that is from a group that has significantly more power than the group they are gazing upon, there’s a new layer of problematic.”
“A First Farewell” is engaging, at times touching, and consistently visually breathtaking. But Wang’s film cannot be separated from the situation on the ground in Xinjiang. While moments of honesty shine through, the overall messaging is at best unclear, and at worst naïve, in the face of the region’s ongoing human rights crisis.
About the author
About the editor
Jessie Lau is a freelance writer, journalist and artist covering China and Asia from a transnational feminist perspective. She serves as Online Editor-in-Chief and Board Member at NüVoices. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_laujessie.