Chinese whispers

Xiaolu Guo on the voices of a changing country

This year's Doc/Fest in Sheffield, which I caught the tail end of at the weekend, had a great selection of films on show. Of note were Men of the City, Marc Isaac's surprisingly tender portrait of workers in the City of London, and Erik Grandini's Videocracy, which unpicks the poisonous links between celebrity culture and political power in Berlusconi's Italy. There were also arts docs covering, variously, Brian Eno and the making of Tarkovsky's Stalker.

For me, though, the real star was Once Upon a Time Proletarian, by the Chinese novelist and director Xiaolu Guo. It consists of interviews with 12 people drawn from across Chinese society: from an ageing peasant who longs for the days of Mao, to frustrated small-town teenagers, to rich Beijing businessmen. Filmed in spare moments during the shooting of Guo's forthcoming fiction film, She, a Chinese (which I wrote about here), it has a wonderful spontaneity that captures a fleeting moment in China's history.

Below, taken from the Q+A session that followed the screening -- and abridged by me -- Guo explains what her film has to say about modern China.

I wanted to make a group portrait presenting the different social classes in China that have arisen over the last 20 years. China used to be a very simple society: before communism it was made up of peasants or slaves and the emperor system. From the 1950s onwards the whole country changed, but it was still a simple social structure: soldiers, workers and peasants.

Now China is in this period of radical change, where people are losing their identities, losing faith in both traditional and socialist values. There's a new middle class, millionaires, even billionaires. People who used to have a peasant identity, who spent their lives planting rice, now have to work in factories making computer parts.

[The film] shows a kind of collective melancholy. This whole country has lost its old values, and we were never a religious country, so now everyone has to force themselves to be civilised.

I don't trust objective narrative. For me, the truth is subjective and emotional. I don't want to know people's life stories, all I want to know is that moment when they look at the camera. It's very powerful but it's over so quickly.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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