Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Ou Dede and his Daughters, Channel 4

A terribly sad film from the beautiful and dramatic hills of rural China as a folk musician tries in vain to balance his ancestral obligations with modern realities which, if not clearly evident in their poor country lives, cast an ever-lengthening shadow. Dede is required to teach his instrument, the daria, a rudimentary guitar, and his songs, which his family have compiled over many generations, to his son and not a stranger. Unfortunately he has three daughters. Already fined for his zealous procreation, he begs the junior village elder to allow him to try again for a son but the elder wants him to teach the daria to outsiders, as part of their Nu culture. It is the 21st century, the elder tells him, he needs to modernise.

Meanwhile his youngest daughter loses a goat out on the hills which then eats his neighbour’s crops. They arrive to exact recompense and when a belligerent Dede refuses they brandish machetes at him before taking one of his goats and beheading it outside his front door. The cameraman observes this before re-entering Dede’s hut where he sits in the near darkness with his family, as the daughters cry. Dede warns them that if this happens again the men will force him to let them marry his daughters.

In the absence of a son, Dede finally decides to teach a daughter and he lights upon his youngest. She refuses, however, because she wants to go to school. When the teacher asks her why she refused, she coldly points out that the daria has barely brought her father any success. The teacher admonishes her, however, advising her to learn it, in addition to her book studies. The school is a hut and the class consists of the girl, about 12, and two boys, one about 4 and one about 6. After a foreshortened lesson, since the textbooks haven’t arrived, they sing a song.

Dede is now singing his songs on his porch. In a scene reminiscent of a blues singer, he bemoans his fate, pointing out in song that nobody is listening to him, that only the Gods can hear him. The villagers despise him, he declares, because he will not modernise.

The middle daughter is fuming that Dede will not teach her the daria, instead teaching the youngest who says she doesn’t want to learn. She is convinced that he prefers the youngest, despite both her mother and her elder sister assuring her that it is not so. This comes to a head at a special family dinner at which they are eating pork. In his speech before they eat Dede outrages the middle daughter by seeming to say he does indeed favour the youngest and the youngest then tells her she is illiterate. A massive row ensues, first bowls smashed and fighting and finally Dede himself kicks over the table on which the pots are sat.

In desperation he goes to see his father’s grave and in a terrible, terrible scene, weeps and blows his constantly running nose as he begs his ancestors for advice. He complains about these new fangled ideas of teaching Nu culture ‘I don’t even know what the hell culture is’ he says bitterly. Finally, after losing patience with the unforthcoming spirits, he smashes the daria on the rocks.

The overall impression was of a man being driven to destruction. It was horribly poignant perhaps partly because for all that Dede brought it on himself, his instinct was to preserve his tradition. Perhaps the romantic in me couldn’t resist the poverty and simplicity of their life but in a few years none of this will be left at all. They were so poor it seemed as though he wouldn’t even be able to afford another daria at all, let alone one passed down through generations.

This was of course to ignore completely the film crew, whose presence at some moments was determinedly peculiar. Many of the scenes had a certain staged feel to them, although substantively they were convincing, and if Dede was acting in his final scene the man should be given a Oscar by special delivery. Presumably the film crew will have given him some money, but the problems he faced have no easy solution. Dede gave the uncomfortable impression of a man who was soon to find too much solace in a sake bottle, as everything collapsed around him. Modernisation is like a virus which consumes everything in its path and this film neatly illustrated the costs and subtle losses we endure to feed its rapacious appetite. It was unbearably poignant and I would never have written this if I thought I could easily see it again. As it is at least this will keep a memory.