Behind the Scenes of a Rebellion

A new film documents the efforts of southern Chinese villagers to rid their local government of corruption.

2012.03.28
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wukanberatejournalist-305.jpg A Wukan villager scolds the camera in a YouTube screengrab from the film 'Three Days in Wukan.'
RFA

Guangzhou-based documentary maker Ai Xiaoming on Wednesday released a full-length film about the struggle by villagers in the rebel Guangdong village of Wukan to remove their local village chief amid allegations of decades of graft and illegal land sales.

Ai said she had made "Three Days in Wukan," a chronicle of three crucial days in the villagers' attempts to have their demands met, out of a sense of "shame."

"We thought, all those foreigners are getting in [to Wukan], we would be ashamed if we didn't even go there when we are already right here in Guangzhou," Ai said in an interview on Wednesday.

The film shows how Ai managed to evade armed police roadblocks encircling Wukan on Dec. 19 last year and gain entrance to a village that considered itself under siege.

Her camera captures the first reactions of Xue Jinwan, daughter of Xue Jinbo who died while in police custody earlier in December, after she was permitted to see his body but not allowed to take photographs.

"My father's body had already begun to stink, so I can't see how the time of death could have been correct," she tells Ai.

Ai follows nervous and angry villagers through a dark maze of alleyways festooned with defiant banners and crisscrossed only by scooters to interview the key members of the "temporary committee" at the heart of Wukan's rebellion.

One Wukan villager points accusingly at the camera, mistaking the film crew for journalists from Guangzhou's Nanfang daily.

"I am going to scold you Nanfang journalists," said the man, the father of detained protester Zhuang Liehong.

"You don't work for the people; you work for corrupt officials, and you are cheating the people," he said.

Citizen video

Ai's footage is supplemented by cellphone video provided by the villagers themselves, detailing their trips to nearby Lufeng city to protest the sale of their land by local officials.

It records long-running strategic meetings in activists' smoke-filled living rooms, against an ever-present background of hard-line rhetoric from Party officials on the local satellite channel.

It reveals how villagers believed themselves to be under a very real threat of an armed crackdown by police and military forces, and how they planned carefully to avoid such an outcome.

"If we run into armed forces we will sit down," former protest leader Lin Zuluan tells reporters on the eve of a major demonstration.

"We will stage a silent sit-in lasting one hour, and then we will regroup and return to the village, so as to avoid tangling with the army or the police, and to avoid bloodshed," said Lin who was recently elected as Wukan's new Party secretary following a direct ballot earlier this month.

The film also reveals the depth of social cohesion during those days in Wukan, where a population of more than 10,000 shares just a few dozen surnames.

Youth groups compose a special rock ballad in honor of their homeland, roaring off in leather jackets on groups of motorbikes and scooters to reinforce the barricades protecting their village.

Another swiftly formed group mobilizes the village's women, with shouts of "We are [powerful]" at a female-only rally.

Reporter presence

While police roadblocks often prevented journalists from slipping through the net and entering the village, a surprising number appear to have made it, many of them from Hong Kong.

In the film, they take up lodgings, paying villagers to house them, rather than advertising their presence on nationwide security networks by registering at a hotel.

They buy their own food, and the villagers cook it for them.

Chinese reporters are also present at the news conferences held by the leaders of the rebellion, with one chain-smoking reporter from Beijing confessing to dashing past a roadblock on a motorbike in order to make it to the village.

"This story is pretty strange," he confesses. "Not many domestic media are covering it ... and they are mostly using official copy from Xinhua."

"But my bosses said I could go, so I came."

Ai has faced repercussions ever since she returned from Wukan with her candid and highly atmospheric footage.

"The security officers from my university have been pursuing me ... That's why I have turned off my cellphone," she said.

"They would come to my door and leave a note every day, right up until Lunar New Year, asking me not to make anything public online relating to the Wukan incident."

But for Ai, transparency is always better than confusion.

"Of course, as everyone can now see, things actually turned out rather well," she said. "I think the government underwent a change in its thinking, and that is very meaningful."

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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