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Children’s Tales from the Taklamakan

Beautifully shot and narrated, A First Farewell is a rare Uygur-language film with a cast of amateur actors that tells a heartwarming coming-of-age story set in Xinjiang’s desert

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

After a 179-day closure of cinemas, audiences in China welcomed the first new theatrical release since the Covid-19 outbreak, A First Farewell.  

Released on July 20, the 86-minute debut from young director Wang Lina examines rural life in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region through the stories of three Uygur children and their families with scenes of endless orchards, cotton fields and crescent moons rising from the vast dunes of the Taklamakan Desert. 

The film won the KPlus Generation Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Best Asian Future Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2019.  

“After being estranged from cinemas for a long time, I think people are longing to be warmed and comforted by movies like this one - a movie about a little pain and plight but also about hopes for purity and happiness,” producer Qin Xiaoyu told NewsChina.  

Growing Pains
A First Farewell revolves around three childhood friends - Isa Yasan, Kalbinur Rahmati and her younger brother Alinaz. Isa spends most of his time tending to his family’s goats and caring for his mother, who can neither speak nor hear and suffers from mental illness. Kalbinur and Alinaz not only struggle in their school subjects, particularly Chinese language, but also with their parents’ conflicting ambitions. Their father wants to stay in the countryside to work in the cotton fields, while their more ambitious mother is determined to move to the city for a better paying job and better education for their kids.  

The inseparable trio enjoy carefree times together, playing with a lamb they keep, romping in the sand dunes, and climbing a nearby poplar tree. But the children gradually realize that part of growing up is leaving thepeople they love. Isa has to say goodbye to his older brother, who goes to the city for university, and his mother after his father sends her to a nursing home. The three friends must say goodbye when the siblings’ family leaves the village for the city.  

The film depicts a bucolic and tranquil way of life left undisturbed for centuries, filled with harvesting cotton, herding, tea breaks with flatbread and traditional Uygur songs. But underneath the surface, both children and adults are dealing with tremendous changes.  

Learning standard Chinese, also known as Putonghua, poses an enormous challenge for Kalbinur and her brother, who both score low on tests. Their mother blames her husband for not taking their children’s language studies seriously, which could open more opportunities for the family.  

“I did not realize how important Putonghua is. Now you need it everywhere. […] I hate being poor,” Kalbinur’s mother complains. Her desire for social mobility eventually drives her to move the family to a faraway town that has Putonghua-only schools.  

Just like Isa and Kalbinur, Wang grew up in a tiny village in Shaya County, about a 30-minute drive from where the film is set.  

She had a similar childhood. Wang remembers lying down and watching the moon rise in the desert and chatting with friends under the trees. Sometimes as they played, elderly Uygur locals driving carts would yell: “Naughty kids, hop on and let the horse take you for a ride.” 

The taste of mulberry lingers in her memory. “Mulberry and Russian olive trees lined the main village road. Often we’d pick mulberries on the way to school. People walking by would help us and shake the trees, saying: ‘Take the mulberries to school. A sweet berry sweetens your entire day,’” Wang said.  

Wang was eager to leave the village and see more of the world. In 2007, she left to attend university in Hunan Province. But only when she was far from home did the true beauty of Xinjiang grip her heart.  

Every time she went home, she watched as the poplar trees and matchbox-like houses rolled past her taxi window as folk melodies flowed from the radio. She felt something within her had awakened.  

“I didn’t understand Xinjiang until I became an adult. I gradually realized that at its core is a poetic beauty that could be found everywhere, from the language to the softly whispering Tarim River,” Wang said.  

In 2014, Wang attended a graduate course in television production at the Communication University of China in Beijing. For her project, she planned to film a documentary about the land where she grew up.  

She spent one year in Shaya County, where she eventually focused her lens on three children - Isa, Kalbinur and Alinaz. She spent another year living with them and filming their everyday life. Wang described the finished product as ¡°a long poem dedicated to my beloved hometown.” 

Isa Yasan from A First Farewell

Fabric of Life
After graduating in 2016, Wang applied to film production company Elephant Film for a job as an assistant director. She included the documentary in her resume, which caught the eye of Elephant Film founder Qin Xiaoyu, who had the idea to make it a feature film. 

“When I first saw the images of these kids, I felt the soul of a movie. The real charmof film characters is they can move people. Audiences trust them and find it so worthwhile to get to know them during the span of a movie,” Qin told our reporter.  

Wang wrote the screenplay based on the children’s stories. There was not a single professional actor in the film. They cast villagers for every role, which gives the film more authenticity. 

Wang lived with the villagers for more than a year and developed deep bonds with them. People got used to her and her camera. “It was like filming your own parents at home. They weren’t on guard and didn’t feel unnatural in front of you,” Wang told our reporter on the phone. She often slept next to the daughter, Kalbinur.  

The deep trust between Wang and the family resulted in natural, moving performances from the children.  

The children had never watched movies. At first, they didn’t understand what the cameras were for. Wang cast local adults to create a more realistic, convincing environment that would help the children react more naturally in front of the lens. 

In a scene where Kalbinur fails a Putonghua test, she stands as her teacher harshly reprimands her during a parent-teacher conference. Unaware they were filming, the girl burst into tears and trembled. Her display of genuine emotions makes the scene impressive and moving. 

In another, the teacher asks Isa about his dreams for the future. The boy says he wants to be a doctor to treat his mother’s illness and make money to help his family. When asked “what else,” Isa says, “then buy myself a toy.” The director had pre-arranged the questions, but Isa was speaking his mind and being true to himself.  

Wang believes that a simple plot can also make a good movie as long as it showcases the minute yet moving details of life’s fabric. “Art doesn’t have to come from your imagination. It can be born of where you have connections to the world,” Wang told NewsChina.  

“To some extent, it’s not a normal film that uses standard cinematic language. It’s more like a spontaneous expression of real inner emotions,” Wang said.  

There are no dubbed English or Chinese versions, as Wang insists that the aura of the land can only be captured in the language of its own people. “I always believe that a good movie can be like the soft creak of a cradle or the sweet tune of a quiet lullaby. It can be beautiful even without language,” she said. 

Still from A First Farewell

Poetic Realism
Hou Kemin, president of China Children’s Film Association and professor of directing at Beijing Film Academy, said that there are two kinds of children’s films: stories told from a child’s perspective, and stories about children told by adults. According to Hou, a true children’s movie should be the first kind, but most Chinese children’s films are the latter and narrated in a didactic, condescending way.  

Qin Xiaoyu believes A First Farewell is the former, without question. “Wang’s film aims to discover children instead of teaching them. In the film there is no overly precocious child performing in an affected, semi-adult way or speaking lines written by adults. This carefree, natural state of children has long been absent from cinema,” Qin said.  

Many critics and viewers have pointed out A First Farewell recalls coming-of-age Iranian films such as Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is My Friend’s Home (1987), Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997) and Hana Makhmalbaf’s Collapsed Out of Shame (2007).  

Wang said the aesthetics of Kiarostami’s films have influenced her own. “I particularly like what Kiarostami once said: ‘I believe poetic films will have longer lasting impressions than narrative films. Every film has some kind of narrative, but the important thing is how it’s presented. It should be poetic, which offers more interpretations,’” she told NewsChina.  

The director said she feels an ideal film is realistic, but that does not mean documentary style. “Poetic realism leaves limitless room for interpretation and allows audiences to see the poetry in everyday things and the complexities and true meaning of life,” Wang said.  

In Kiarostami’s 1997 film Taste of Cherry, the protagonist drives around in search of someone who would agree to bury him under a cherry tree after he commits suicide. He finally reaches a grove of mulberry trees and eats a fruit. The taste gives him a new appreciation for life, and he shakes the berries down for the children playing nearby. Awakened by life’s simple pleasures, he gives up his plan for suicide and takes the berries home.  

Wang deeply relates to the film. She believes the simple things in nature have the power to heal. “I believe a sweet mulberry can be powerful enough to help people leave their sorrows behind. That’s the way it is in the little village where I grew up,” Wang said.  

“In the hinterland of the Taklamakan Desert, the sun can dry all your tears,” she said.