Two small children growing up in an Uyghur village in China come of age amidst the eradication of their culture: a tender, stunning feature and an ode to her heritage from an Uyghur writer/director
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Isa and Kalbinur are a pair of best friends who live in a small Uyghur village in the Xinjiang region of China and attend elementary school together. The two are so tight that they share custody of a baby lamb each day after school. But not everything is as smooth, sweet, and straightforward in their lives as taking care of the little animal. Isa has to take care of his sick, non-verbal mother, who is prone to running away from home. Kalbinur’s parents are always fighting and struggling with poverty. And then, there is Mandarin: the official language that the kids have to become proficient in to have a future. Isa is trying his best with the state language, while Kalbinur is lagging behind. As their parents have to make some hard choices, Isa and Kalbinur face big, unexpected changes in their lives, the first advent of what growing up will be.
WHO MADE IT: Lina Wang is a Chinese filmmaker of Uyghur ethnicity, who herself grew up in a small village in Xinjiang. “A First Farewell” is her debut as both a writer and director, and even though the plot is not biographical, the essence of the film sure is. Non-professional actors played all the roles in the film: real Uyghurs she encountered during her research for the film, which was initially planned as a documentary.
WHY DO WE CARE: The Chinese government has been hard at work with their crackdown on the Uyghur people lately, with reeducation facilities aimed at eradicating the Uyghur and Muslim identities of Xinjiang residents. “A First Farewell” is not a film of definite political criticism, which allowed it to stay under the radar with Chinese censorship. However, the viewer will notice that the preoccupation with this obliteration of culture is all there, just concealed subtly. This is most noticeable in the scenes that involve the study of Mandarin. Instead of fostering an adaptive climate, which would produce bilingual kids, the Mandarin classes are dense and unwelcoming. There is a lofty curriculum full of classic poetry and unhelpful, authoritative teachers. But worst of all, the school staff treats academic underperformance as an affront to the Communist party. This reflection of the government’s oppression in the school intimidations speaks to the unacceptable treatment of minorities more powerfully than any carefully penned political missive would.
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: “A First Farewell” is a breathtaking and heartbreaking eulogy for the Uyghur world, a fascinating melange of the Chinese, the Turkic, and the Muslim. It will serve as a wonderful introduction to the realities of Xinjiang for those who had heard the news about the camps but struggled to put a face to the Uyghurs. For those who are already familiar with the issues, the film offers an opportunity to revel in the Uyghur village’s simple life, with its vast cotton fields, bright splashes of traditional garments, and the melodious language. “A First Farewell” could easily be a UNESCO application for the protection of Uyghur culture. But it’s also an uncomplicated but accomplished and profound film about the loss of fragility with exceptional acting by its little stars.
A First Farewell (Di Yi Ci De Li Bie), 2018
Director: Lina Wang