Sunday 20 April 2014, by
Alone is a documentary depicting the lives of three young girls, Fen (4), Zhen (6) and Ying (10) in rural, south west China. These young children have been doubly left- first by their mother (for reasons which remain largely unknown) and subsequently by their father, whose flight from the family home is undertaken in order to find work in the city and send money home. Visually, the film’s landscape scenes are so vivid and plush it’s easy to forget that its very barrenness and their lack of food has forced the girls’ father away. I learnt after the screening that China has 200m internal migrants and between 10m and 13m children are separated from a parent that migrates within China to find work.
Contrary to the title the girls are neither literally nor figuratively alone, but are looked after by their aunt and grandfather. It is the smaller aspects of the daily life of this restructured family that tell the story of changes in rural China. In an early scene Zhen teases the youngest child, Fen, by putting Fen’s foot on her lap . Zhen delights in the torment of her younger sister which draws tears for Fen. While Fen threatens to ’tell dad’, ‘dad’ isn’t there and everyone knows it. Instead Ying, the oldest, and now parent, comes to pick up Fen from her tantrum and wipe her tears. ’Alone’ forces us to reflect on the meaning of family in these circumstances and how the displacement of workers can turn aunts in foster mothers and children into adults.
I came away from this documentary thinking of my own familial experience with worker displacement and how this both fractures families and forces people to create new relationships in the wake of their destruction. After my mother’s father left the family in the late 1950’s, her 9-year old sister was then responsible to take care of her younger siblings whilst grandmother worked as a cleaner and washer woman. My aunt still resents my grandmother for ’working her like a dog’, while my mom understands that my grandmother had no choice. However, this forced migration created opportunities as well as negating them; five years later when my grandmother and the family were forced to move West, from Louisiana, they found improved living and working conditions. But just like the family in ’Alone’ these stories of displacement, migration and labour do not fit neatly in national narratives of citizenship and national identity.
As I watched scene after scene of Ying in her worn and stained hoodie with ’lovely diary’ in pink script on the back, my mind raced with constant comparisons to other 10 year old girls. Childhood may be a social concept with a fluid history of its own but, nonetheless, Ying’s family is clearly a casualty of capitalism and the price this family pays is not limited to money.
Dir. Wang Bing, 2012
Alone was presented by Dochouse in collaboration with the Chinese Visual Festival- for more information see http://www.dochouse.org/