The warriors of cotton

Zhou Hau’s film, Cotton, screened for the first time in India, revealed another side to China and its willingness to acknowledge its shortcomings

Published - April 09, 2015 09:32 pm IST

One morning, hours before the crack of dawn, hordes of women set out into the cotton fields in Xinjiang in China. As they travelled, darkness enveloped them and there was only the sound of the motor of the truck carrying them. They had reached Xinjiang only the previous day after travelling for 58 hours by a train that was full to the gills. Leaving their children behind with their husbands, they undertook this cumbersome journey because, during the next two months, they would earn valuable money by picking cotton from the rich fields in this province - money they can send home.

Images of these women jostling for space inside the truck on their way to the field, of them singing songs in praise of their tough lives, merrily on the train and then trying to get some sleep, sharing blankets in their dingy, overcrowded bunkers at night leave an indelible mark as one watches Zhou Hau’s film, ‘Cotton’. The women appeared as warriors, fighting a war against poverty. While they were deeply aware of their plight, they were also proud of the fact that they can fend for their families.

It took Zhou Hau nine years to produce this film. He released it last year and Vikalp Bengaluru screened it for the first time in India at Everest theatre as part of Doc@Everest, recently.

In a sense, ‘Cotton’ is a universal film about workers’ plight. The harsh conditions that they have to work in, the low pay and the fact that they are used as cheap labour are aspects of the working class in many countries, especially in South Asia. The film maps the entire production cycle of textiles starting from a farmer family that harvests cotton to these women who pick cotton from the fields to the ones spinning thread to make fabric to finally, those who make jeans and sell them. Across the cycle, women are mostly employed in these factories and fields.

The film is also rooted in the specific context of China. At the end of the screening, in a Skype interview with the filmmaker, conducted and translated by C.V. Ranganathan, India’s former ambassador to China, Zhou says: “The political structure does not allow any trade union organisation to be set up in China. So, the workers cannot go on strike. It isn’t organised labour in that sense. I saw a lot of dissatisfaction among workers in Xinjiang, and they were more than willing to talk.”

But did he run into trouble with the State or the factory owners while shooting the film? “I was encouraged to produce the film. In fact, the film was even shown in theatres in China. The thing about the country is that Chinese leaders have no shame in acknowledging problems. Even factory owners were more than willing to co-operate. With growing prosperity, China wants to fight corruption and be more transparent about their own shortcomings,” translated Ranganathan.

In a strange paradox then, the film has the assent of the workers as well as the State. One wonders though, whether this assent, especially, on the part of the State, shows their willingness to change things as well.

The camera, throughout the film, stood faithfully beside the workers as they worked. The women too opened up to the filmmaker and let the camera into the private space of their home and the bunkers. Transitioning from the heat of the fields to the claustrophobia of the factories, the film played the role of the probe with ease. It also mapped the landscape of Xinjiang, an autonomous region with a population that is largely Islamic and a weather that is ideal for the growth of cotton.

Zhou Hau explained that he showed the film at the factories. When asked why women were preferred by this industry, Ranganathan said, “The women in the audience may not like the answer. Zhou Hau says that since it is a low skill industry, women are preferred.”

In the film, on their way to Xinjiang in the overcrowded train, one woman asks another if she feels sad that she is away from her husband. She laughs and says that she is doing this because she wants to and she does not care about what happens to her husband. Another woman joins her, they sing a valiant song praising the strength of the woman, her determination and courage. The journey continues.

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