Venice International Film Festival


VENICE -- "Umbrella" is a scathing documentary on modern-day China, where an agrarian economy is fast transitioning into sweatshop commercial activity. Director Du Haibin, with a number of documentaries to his credit, including "Along the Railway" (2000) and "Stone Mountain" (2006), visually shows how farmlands are being taken over to set up factories and economic zones. Haibin's work appears destined for more festival play dates but only limited theatrical exposure.

Those lucky few farmers who have been compensated set up manufacturing units that help them amass wealth quickly. They lead opulent life styles, which bear little resemblance to their earlier farming days marked by frugality. There is one scene in a swank shopping mall where a farmhand-turned-shopkeeper is discussing her choice of cars. She finally settles for an Audi telling her friends that she would go in for a BMW a year later. This is present-day Chinese Communism, where economic and social disparities are growing quickly and destroying communal fabric and harmony,

The film opens in a huge sweat-shop where hundreds of workers make umbrellas. Haibin captures not just the production intricacies, but also the greed and desperation. For every umbrella that is sold in an upmarket mall in Shanghai or Beijing at a fancy price, the men and women behind the actual production are paid a pittance. They are seduced to stay on by offers of higher wages in return for higher productivity, an extremely punishing proposition. Wage increases are also given to a worker when he brings more men to keep the assembly line moving without a break.

What is of greater consequence and concern is the migration of farmers towards urban centers, motivated by vanishing farmlands and comparatively attractive salaries offered by sweatshops. The fields that survive are cultivated by women, elderly people ad even children. Haibin contrasts this with the pulsating city life, and says that there is little connection between rural and urban China. The countryside is "separate world," the farmer a broken man.

Many people do go to college, but their parents who are often farmers trapped in a financial squeeze. All this means a dangerous transformation from an essentially farming nation into a seemingly prosperous industrial state.