I fell in love with documentary while making a small film with immigrant workers in Korea. I discovered film’s power as a tool to communicate with others and decided to learn more about it. That led me first to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London where I gained a deeper understanding of how communities and identities are forged through my MA in Social Anthropology. With that foundation, I went on to study documentary direction at the National Film and TV School.
On moving to China in 2008 I focused first on developing my Mandarin and Cantonese language skills together with the cultural understanding necessary to make truly sensitive, genuine films in that fascinating country. Now armed with that foundation, I want pursue my enduring dream to tell sincere human stories that champion the voices of those who would otherwise never be heard.
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A voluntary migrant myself, I have been always interested in people on the move and the issues they encounter on their journeys. After moving to Guangzhou ? a hub for Chinese internal migrants. I was immediately struck by the contrast of these poor workers and the gleaming metropolis they were building. I made friends with children easily ? my Asian appearance and imperfect language somehow attracted them and brought us closer together. Being an outsider to the city myself gives us further common ground.
I have managed to build a close and trusting relationship with class 603 at Tong Yuan primary school. The trust they have shown me, and the content I have already filmed takes this project far beyond the more cautious, choreographed view of China usually allowed to leave its borders. My unique standpoint as a boundary wanderer, and the investment I have made in the language and the individuals allowed me to bring an interesting and sensitive perspective, shining a light on those often hidden in the shadows of China’s modern economic miracle.
After moving to Guangzhou– a hub for Chinese internal migrants– I was immediately struck by the contrast of these migrant workers and the gleaming metropolis they were building. I became fascinated by their daily lives, and spent a lot of time wandering the narrow paths between clusters of temporary homes, taking photos of bright coloured clothes hanging out against dull grey buildings and chatting with residents over the cups of tea they invariably offered me. As a new mother I was able to share with migrant ladies the joys and worries about their children.
I gradually learnt that these migrants’children have to make important choices on reaching their last year of primary school without a local household registration they can’t continue their education without placing a huge financial burden upon their parents. Should they leave their parents andreturn to their hometown where they can study for free, continue their education in the city at great cost, or become migrant workers themselves? That led me to the subject of this film ? the informal schools that cater for these disadvantaged children, those who look to shape their lives, and the journeys these children ultimately embark upon.
I made friends with the children easily and managed to become their ‘Big sister Haryun (夏莲姐姐)’ rather than the usual ‘Auntie’. The children welcomed me into their lives and wanted to share their dreams, secrets, frustration and loneliness. I was often invited to their dinner table at home and introduced to their parents and other siblings. These private yet social experiences bound me to their parents as they shared with another young mother the joys and worries they felt for their children.
I also observed the enduring,tireless efforts of Mr. Tian, their homeroom teacher - togive these migrant children the best education he can, and frequentheartbreak heencounters as these efforts are frustrated. Tian is a true hero, and embodies to me the generosity and perseverance of the true Chinese spirit.
I don’t want these migrant children to be seen simply as passive victims of an unjust system who fall into following their parents’ footsteps. They are trying to lead and craft their own lives, making their own decisions and taking responsibility for these choices even in the face of adversity.
We all encounter crossroads in life, theirs just came a little earlier.
Wei from Guizhou cannot understand why anyone would want to film her class. It’s a disaster zone - the worst in the school. In any case, her parents are dragging her back to her village soon, tired of a life in the city. She’s just started to fit in here in Guangzhou and forgotten her local dialect ? now she must become an outsider again.
Wu from Shantou finds it hard to talk to his classmates – they’re all from other towns and he doesn’t know what they really think of him. Instead, he spends his time cooking up schemes and mischief to lighten the boredom of study with a cohort of like-minded rebels. He wants to ditch school as soon as he can and work in a factory to earn his first down payment on a BMW.
Zhao from Hunan has never felt at home in Guangzhou. Her parents brought her in their pursuit of a better life but she wants to go home. For her, there are more important things to life than school – not least a certain boy back in her village. But as the eldest in the class, she’s sure her immature classmates couldn’t understand. Bullied into seeing out the year by her teacher and parents, she reluctantly accepts her fate, but thinks education is pointless for a migrant girl like her.
This film will follow the crucial final year of three migrant children at a privately-run primary school and portray their passion, struggles, frustration and dreams. And it will watch those children make life-changing decisions; whether to go back to their hometowns for further education, struggle to continue their studies in the city or enter the underground child workforce.
Under current Chinese law, families without local household registration - typically economic migrants from poor areas of China, have no access to free education in the cities in which they work. They face the difficult choice of paying over a third of their salaries to send their children to study at normal local schools, or to much cheaper Min Ban (‘citizen run’) schools, where there is no regulation of teaching standards and facilities. Most choose the latter.
While the number of workers migrating to China’s big cities continues to increase, their host cities remain deeply ambivalent towards their duty of care for this largely disenfranchised constituency.
Recently the Beijing local government decided to shut down Min Ban schools in China’s capital citing ‘safety concerns’ - leaving thousands of migrant children returning after the summer holidays with no schooling and no alternative options. Guangzhou government has not yet announced their plans for migrant schools, but with provincial governments usually following the capital’s decision it could be only a matter of time before schools there face the same fate.
I was able to get unprecedented access to a Min Ban primary school for their whole final school year. This allowed me to build close, trusting and very honest relationships with the children, parents and teachers. I filmed on my own, observing the children’s lives and befriending them. I was also able to capture the choices three students had to make at its conclusion. One returned unwillingly with her parents to the countryside to take up free secondary education; another abandoned school mid-year and started work; the final struggled to complete her classes, only to decide ultimately to become a migrant worker herself. Those three journeys will be interwoven with scenes from their daily life with other classmates and teachers, and at home with their parents.
Mr. Tian, Homeroom teacher
Quite possibly the only teacher who really cares about the future of the children in Class 603. He preaches to the kids with genuine passion about how important studying is for their lives, but it always seems to go in one ear and out the other.
Wei Xue Xian, The head girl
A proud and outspoken representative of the class. She organizes a successful petition to demand that a new, young and inexperienced Mandarin teacher be replaced by the class’s former teacher who is older and has 36 years of teaching experience. But the petition backfires when the returning feature takes a (literal) iron fist to enforce discipline on her unruly pupils. Wei’s parents decide to abandon Guangzhou for their hometown of Guizhou after Chinese New Year, taking a disconsolate Wei with them.
Zhao Ya Fang, The dreamer
One year older than other students, Zhao has a good relationship with her teachers and more mature concerns than some of her classmates, including a boy she longs for back home. She wants to return despite her parents’ disapproval: Guangzhou has never been the place for her, she says. She believes she is old enough to drive her own future, but back in the countryside finds reality a stark contrast from her romantic imaginings. She reflects somewhat ruefully that she is not yet old enough to be free from school (and the influence of her parents) and looks somewhat reluctantly to continue her education.
Wu Jia Chun, The rebel
Whenever there is a buzz in the classroom Wu is guaranteed to be found at its center – directing his gang of classroom rebels. Bold towards teachers, Wu is savvy enough to save himself from getting into real trouble. He is uncomfortable with the school environment and appears at odds with the world. After run-ins with teachers and with parents urging him to make something of his life he decides to quit school and find a job in a factory. In the short period that this film covers we see the emergence of a more confident and self reliant individual. At the same time the relationship with his mother in particular is a painful and poignant study of the rights of passage of young children and the dashed hopes and aspirations of parents to see their children experience a better life than their own.
Filming took place between 1st of September 2010 and 15th of July 2011, covering a full final year of these migrant children.
This project was chosen to participate in the first ‘Crossing Borders’ program by the European Documentary Network and Documentary Campus (http://www.edn.dk/activities/edn-activity-texts/crossing-borders-2010-part-3/), was developed through three workshops and pitched during the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival in December 2010.
Then it was selected for Viewfinder Asia workshop by Al Jazeera English, which was taken place as a part of Busan International Film Festival in 2012 and was developed with their commissioning editors, Fiona Lawson-Baker and Flora Gregory.
‘Chinese Lessons’ will be aired from Sunday, September 1, at the following times GMT: Sunday: 2000; Monday: 1200; Tuesday: 0100; Wednesday: 0600.
‘A Class of Their Own’, a feature length is being submitted to film festivals around the globe.