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‘Above the Dust’ Uses a Child’s Voice to Explain Complexity of 20th Century Chinese History, Says Wang Xiaoshuai

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Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai is known for his sensitive and touching depiction of young people’s and adolescents’ stories while also cataloging the consequences of China’s incredible and rapid modernization. In “Above the Dust” he does both. But he has taken a significant risk by showing it in Berlin before obtaining all the necessary permissions from the Chinese government.

Wang spoke to Variety before the film’s world premiere in the Generation Kplus section of the Berlin Film Festival.

Why tackle such a large subject as land reform in what appears to be a children’s film?

Firstly, I don’t think it’s really about children. I think [land reform] is a large subject, and difficult to explain. After ‘So Long My Son,’ this is about workers and peasants in China. And what has happened to them. China has had such rapid urbanization, and so I wanted to tell about what happened in the countryside.

For a long time I knew that I wanted to do this. But I could not find the right story for it. I read a lot about it. Learned how nobody was looking after the land. It seems that one reason was that the peasants didn’t have their own land. They could not make a living just waiting for the harvest and had to go into the cities for work.

Then when I read a novel about a boy who has a dream about a gun, I figured this might be helpful. In a dream you are free to jump in and out of reality. To move to a different period. And because of the boy’s age he can ask naïve questions.

So why is the film’s Chinese title the boy character’s name ‘Wo Tu’?

The name has a double meaning. It also means ‘rich land’ or ‘fertile land’ Maybe people would think I was making a propaganda film.

When exactly is the film set? We see recent cars, but no cell phones.

It is set around 2009. That is only 15 years ago, but it was not easy to find the village location. In fact, we had to rebuild it. [At the recce stage] we found a village which was mostly empty, only old people there. But, when we came back to shoot in that location, it had been demolished. So, we rebuilt it. The village you see in the film is all reconstructed.

In the boy’s dream sequences, one time the village looked prosperous, but in the next there are millions of people on the march away from a famine. Which was it?

Those sequences are set around 1957-58. This is the period that the Great Leap Forward begins and there was no more private ownership. And by the 1960s the people didn’t have enough land to farm or could not find enough to eat. Going from plenty to starvation happened in a short period, just three or four years.

What was your technique to make the transition between contemporary and historical-dream sequences easily understandable?

I think most Chinese people more than 50 years old would immediately see what was happening. But I was worried about how viewers who don’t know the history might get confused. So, my task was to make as real a depiction of the past as I could.

Was the family with two kids breaching the ‘one child policy’?

That policy was not as strictly applied in the countryside as for the workers in the city. They could have two or three children even. That was especially true in families where the first child was female.

Where did you find the child actors?

They were all from Gansu Province, where we set the film. We recruited from an elementary school and from peasant families. They are all non-professional actors. The boy who plays the central character is fantastic. He is a genius. A real gift.

How did this film become a China-Netherlands coproduction?

It was the convergence of our script and Dutch children’s film foundation. We met their representatives in Beijing before the pandemic.

Does the film have the Dragon Seal, showing that it has censorship approval in China?

Honestly, not yet. We submitted the film to for censorship in October 2022.

So, is it a problem for you to show it in the festival?

There’s pressure on the production company and myself. A lot of pressure. It is forbidden to show the film without a Dragon Seal in Berlin. But Berlin selected it. I’m happy about that. This is the film that I wanted to make. About China, about our lives. About Chinese history and reality.

I should be happy that the film can make its world premiere somewhere like in Berlin. But I have to face pressure first, not knowing exactly what will happen later. According to Chinese regulations, if my film goes to a festival like this without the dragon seal, I’ll be punished.

Let’s hope not.

I hope not too. I didn’t expect to find myself back in this situation three decades after the first time.

Do you think it can be shown in China?

Since we make films for audiences, first of all for Chinese audiences, I really hope that my film can be seen by Chinese audiences, legally and publicly.

Do you plan to make more films?

I want to do another one about intellectuals [under the Cultural Revolution]. But given the situation with ‘Above the Dust’ I don’t know how to move on. I want to use my films to advocate for freedom of expression.

Is the problem censorship, or self-censorship?

“With the long-time suppression that comes from censorship, it is quite difficult to open your mind to create freely. When I have a story to tell, I have to think about censorship first, which kills my own creativity and ability to express things.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.