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The Folk Memory Project

Marie Cahalane explores the evolution of a series of must-see documentaries that explore the personal histories of those who lived through the Great Chinese Famine


The Folk Memory Project

Marie Cahalane explores the evolution of a series of must-see documentaries that explore the personal histories of those who lived through the Great Chinese Famine


The underlying aim of the Folk Memory Project is to document personal memories of the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961, a painful and often neglected episode in China’s not too distant past.

Conceived in 2009 by Wu Wenguang and Wen Hui, the project was launched in 2010 through the CCD Workstation as a social initiative undertaken by a group of volunteer interviewers and directors. In essence, it divulges a hidden past through the voices of those who lived through it.

By summer 2010, the CCD Workstation had assembled 21 volunteers, individuals ranging in age, profession, experience and origin, each with a different biography and a different approach. They were to travel to villages with which they had existing ties and conduct interviews with the inhabitants, aiming to compile a reservoir of memories that would help further understanding of the tumultuous period from which emerged the China we know today. For many of the interviewees, it was the first time they had ever told their story on camera.

One of the directors, Zou Xueping, has produced two installments for the project: “The Starving Village (2010) and follow-up “Satiated Village” (2011, 88min). Her experience offers an illuminating insight into the impact the documentary process was to have on her subjects. After screening her first documentary for the villagers she had interviewed, Zou was perturbed by their adverse reactions. Having shared their experiences with her, they became apprehensive, fearing the reception their recollections of such difficult times might have, particularly with foreign audiences. Zou’s family was also worried about the possible implications of conducting such an investigation.

Maya E. Rudolph, a writer for the Chorus+Echo online community, asked project leader and director Wu Wenguang about the causes of those fears and received a simple answer: “They are worried. They think foreigners won’t understand, will laugh at them. When you saw this film, did you want to laugh at them?”

Wu was slightly more expansive when I spoke to him via email, maintaining that the project’s focus is to act as a catalyst for future change, particularly as regards the personal development of those involved. He also explained that at its inception, The Folk Memory Project was a means of tapping into the “red culture” that has affected subsequent generations so profoundly, but that the project team “never limited our focus to the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine.” Such landmark events could not help but form the underlying currents of the personal narratives of those interviewed.

For choreographer and director Wen Hui, the project was a means of reconnecting with her childhood experiences learning to dance, while also allowing her to intensively study the period in China’s history that spawned many of the ballets in which she later performed (see “Red Detachment of Women”). In her own documentary, “Listening to Third Grandmother’s Stories” (2011, 75mins), Wen uncovers aspects of her past that she was never aware of, unearthing the existence of a previously unkown third grandmother, Su Meiling, her father’s aunt (pictured with Wei above). “When I met her, it was as if she had been waiting her whole life for me to come,” Wen says in her statement accompanying the film. A deep relationship evolves between the two, with Su Meiling’s memories offering a window on both the recent history of Chinese women, as well as Wen Hui’s own past.

In another example of the project’s pioneering work, director Zhang Mengai revisits “47KM,” the village her father comes from, in “Self-Portrait: At 47 KM” (2011, 77mins). During her time in the village she gains a greater understanding of her grandfather and his generation, and learns to overcome her embarrassment over her heritage. The film grapples with accepting, understanding and appreciating the past, as well as the importance of not forgetting. Zhang Mengai incorporates clips of herself dancing in the footage; she becomes part of the village, intertwined with its history.

More than a cache of historical memories, The Folk Memory Project returns to the past, sits down and has a cup of tea and a conversation with it. A relational connection between the volunteers and the people and places they visit creates a dual experience: memories are shared, and they are also experienced on a personal level, ultimately taking the interviewers on their own voyage of introspective discovery.

The project has rapidly gained momentum, attracting an increasing number of participants. This year, The Folk Memory Project, has seen more than 70 volunteers return to 110 villages in 17 different provinces, interviewing over 698 individuals. As a record of forgotten histories, offering a bridge to a past that is becoming ever more distant, it has found a wide and receptive audience internationally.

It is part documentary and part performance, with one screening featuring a stage draped with light netting that plays host to dancers who mirror the firsthand, documentary accounts that are projected behind them. This combination renders the experience all the more poignant, verging on something that transcends time. While the importance of the project can be realized on many levels, the most basic premise is the importance of memory, and the depredation of “forgetting.”

Confucius said, “The palest ink is better than the greatest memory.” The Folk Memory Project is an ink most vivid.

The Folk Memory Project was screened in Beijing earlier this year, and has been shown internationally, appearing at the Weiner Festwochen Festival in Vienna and at the Malta Festival in Poland, amongst others. The showcase will return to Beijing for The 9th Annual Beijing Independent Film Festival, from August 18-26. http://dgeneratefilms.com/uncategorized/beijing-independent-film-festival-opens-saturday-with-over-100-films/