Reed deeds

Doc­u­men­tary high­lights toil of mi­grant work­ers har­vest­ing Hu­nan’s marshes

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By HOULIQIANG houliqiang@chi­nadaily.com.cn

A doc­u­men­tary de­tails the toil of mi­grant work­ers who chop down reeds in Hu­nan’s marshes for $15 to $30 a day.

As cold winds rus­tle through the thou­sands of hectares of reeds around Luhu Lake in Yiyang, Hu nan province, a group of mi­grant work­ers work their way through the marshes armed with sick­les.

The itin­er­ant reed cut­ters live in aban­doned houses and work from dawn un­til dusk, as they try to pocket be­tween 100 ($15) and 200 yuan a day to sup­port their poverty-stricken fam­i­lies.

Ex­ist­ing at the fringes of so­ci­ety, these work­ers’ sto­ries were lit­tle known or talked about un­til the doc­u­men­tary Reed Peo­ple, filmed by Chen Zeng­can from the Hun an Vo­ca­tional Col­lege of Art, which won se­cond prize for a non­fic­tion short film at the 25th Golden Rooster and Hun­dred Flow­ers Film Fes­ti­val in Tang­shan, He­bei province, in Septem­ber.

One of the hero­ines of the doc­u­men­tary is mother-oftwo Wu Taoy­ing, whose hus­band is in a veg­e­ta­tive state due to a cere­bral hem­or­rhage. The 37-year-old has been work­ing the reed marshes for eight years.

“Cut­ting reeds is my only source of in­come,” she told the cam­era, while sit­ting on her makeshift bed on the floor of a win­dow­less house.

Wu has no fur­ni­ture or per­sonal be­long­ings. What cloth­ing she does have hangs from a nail in the crum­bling wall above her bed.

Her two sons, whose ages are not dis­closed in the film, have been left in the care of their 80-year-old grand­fa­ther. They have to cook their own meals and take care of their in­valid fa­ther. “Once my sons’ teacher asked how their fam­ily was and they burst into tears,” Wu said. “I told them there is no need to cry as I am still with you.”

Her neigh­bors have told Wu that a woman her age can­not con­tinue cut­ting reeds for­ever, she said, with a smile.

“I said it doesn’t mat­ter as long as you are strong in heart. I sim­ply think like this and don’t want to think about any­thing else. If I work inmy home­town, I could only make sev­er­al­dozen yuan a day. But you can make up to 200 yuan here if your body is strong enough.”

The film shows the group of reed cut­ters, al­most 60 strong, cook­ing where they sleep us­ing a hon­ey­comb-bri­quette stove. Most have to stand while they eat.

Wu said she will quit cut­ting reeds only once her sons have com­pleted their ed­u­ca­tion, but some of her fel­low work­ers, such as Yang Changfu, can imag­ine few al­ter­na­tives. “We have to get up around 6 am and work even when it’s rain­ing,” the 63-year-old said. “If I don’t work hard, what else can I do?”

The work­ers, whose days in the field end at about 7pm, re­ceive 100 yuan for each mu (0.07 hectare) of reeds they cut, ac­cord­ing to Chen Cailan, who sup­ports a hus­band with can­cer anda son in ju­nior high school.

A voice-over in the doc­u­men­tary de­scribes the work­ers as “mi­grant birds”, and like the reeds them­selves — shaken by the wind, bend­ing but not break­ing.

Chen, the film­maker, said he had found the de­pri­va­tion of the reed marshes shock­ing.

“There is no pub­lic trans­porta­tion, I had to hitch a ride to get there — stop­ping ev­ery­thing from mo­tor­cy­cles to trucks,” he said. “We bought spe­cial shoes with thick soles for the film­ing, but sev­eral pairs were still ruined af­ter be­ing pen­e­trated by the sharp reed roots.”

Zhang Rui, Chen’s teacher and an ad­viser for the doc­u­men­tary, said she told her stu­dents to fo­cus on the reed cut­ters to doc­u­ment the liv­ing con­di­tions of those on the bot­tom rung of so­ci­ety.

ZHANG BIN­BIN / FOR CHINA DAILY

Reed cut­ters are filmed for the new doc­u­men­tary ReedPeo­ple.

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