While terrorism is one of the most acute issues of the 21st century and reducing its causes should be an international priority, different ways of combating it have become artificial validations of oppression. While Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov is famously struggling with such an oppression in Siberia after a faux accusation of terrorism from the Russian authorities, one million ethnic Uyghur Muslims are suffering because of a similar, if not even worse abuse of power in China. They concentrate in the autonomous Uyghur region of Xinjiang in the northwest of the country where 12 milions of Muslims, Uyghur and Kazakh, live and where a social engeneering experiment is underway. A sistematic campaign of cultural and religious repression against Muslims under the pretext of “counter-terrorism,” “anti-separatism,” and “de-extremism”.
Following the violent riots held by a large group, mostly Uyghur Muslims, in 2009 in Ürümqi, the capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, the entire Uyghur community became suspicious of extremism and separatism in the eyes of the Communist Party of China. The death of approximately 200 people, mostly Han Chinese have been put on every single Ürümqi citizen.
But it was only in 2016-2017 that the de-Islamisation situation blew out of any rational, moral or legal proportion. The practice of Islamic religion is forbidden, and so are its specific robes, beards and veils. Any connection with the Islamic State is out of the question. Basic human rights are challenged every day and such practices encourage an already existing differentiation – first rank citizens (Han Chinese) and second rank citizens. Islamophobia is at its highest, both in and outside the “re-education camps” built in the Xinjiang region under the strict orders of Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Chen Quanguo, Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The re-education camps from Xinjiang are in a similar situation with the anti-LGBTQ+ ones from Chechnya (yet another political practice that draws together the Russian and Chinese political leaders). People are taken by force, disappear, are imprisoned under no legal circumstances, sent to camps and tortured. Both kinds of contemporary camps were highly criticized by other leaders (especially Western ones) while a number of witnesses and/or victims spoke about the torture, misery and humiliation that are inside these camps. Nevertheless, what’s specific about the Chinese ones is that their existence was officially acknowledged by the authorities under a faux definition (an educational space in which the Muslin community is learned how to stay away from extremism and praise the state), while the Chechen authorities never admitted that such camps ever existed in their country.
In August 2018 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination publicly reported for the first time the existence of “re-education camps” for Muslim Uyghurs. Many human rights experts accounted as well for an alarming increase in criminal prosecution in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (first and foremost the Chinese Human Rights Defenders). Beijing says its “vocational training centres” in Xinjiang teach employment skills aimed at curbing religious extremism.
Taking into consideration the problematic situation in which China finds itself at the moment and, moreover, the sudden withdrawn of Zhang Yimou’s ONE SECOND and Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung‘s BETTER DAYS from this year’s edition of Berlinale, it was only a matter of course that Wang Lina’s debut feature film A FIRST FAREWELL would draw a lot of attention. And so it did. Even if the Chinese production was represented in the festival’s award ceremony as well by Xiang Zi’s A DOG BARKING AT THE MOON (which won the Teddy Jury Award) and Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun in SO LONG, MY SON (who individually won the Silver Bear for best actress and best actor ), A FIRST FAREWELL by Wang Lina, Best Film in Generation Kplus Section of 69th Berlinale, fits itself right in the middle of the Uyghur crisis and the approval of Chinese censorship.
Isa is a young Uyghur boy who is leading a double life. On one hand, he is just a child who grows up in a small, poor village from Xinjiang. On the other hand, he takes care of his mentally ill mother and other household responsibilities in order to rebalance his family’s situation: his elder brother is preparing to leave the village in order to go to high school and his father needs more time so he can work more and bring more money. The family is a blessing and a burden in Wang Lina’s depiction of the Chinese Uyghur rural life. At the beginning of the film, there’s a discussion over Isa’s shoulders: a young man asks his father if he can leave the village in order to see the town. The answer is a firm negative one. If young people leave, who would take care of their parents as they grow older? The young man turns out to be the father of a close friend of Isa, Kalbinur, and the aim of his attempt to leave the town is guided by his wife who wants their children to learn better Mandarin.
Isa’s family has to confront the burden as well by deciding if the mentally-ill mother should be sent to an asylum or not. The propagandistic discourse of Isa’s father doesn’t convince his son. Isa doesn’t care if the state is a second father and would take care of his mother. Education is a hot topic in Wang Lina‘s film, even if she depicts it as cold as death. The Mandarin teacher from the local school is the only hint that something wrong may be happening outside the small village. Her abusive teaching methods and the way in which she belittles both her pupils and their parents while presenting the bad grades that the children got at her class (the film focuses on Kalbinur’s case) suggest that there’s a certain pressure to learn Mandarin, presented through Kalbinur’s mother perspective – the job opportunities are better. By not suggesting any time coordinate.
“The film is dedicated to my hometown Shaya, Xinjiang”, Wang Lina said That’s how the first film in almost three decades that has been shot in Uyghur and presented at Berlinale ends. And, regardless the content, can you apolitically speak Uyghur at the moment?