Not One Less and neo-realism


Wei Minzhi as the young teacher in Not One Less

(Notes used on an event considering how film could be used in the context of teaching about ‘global issues with students aged 14-16. The first section was actually written in 2000.)

The most influential ‘film movement’ in the history of the cinema was arguably the promotion of neo-realism in Italy during the 1940s. The model of filmmaking practice that emerged from a very specific set of circumstances in that turbulent period became the inspiration for a diverse range of celebrated directors from Satyajit Ray in Bengal and Sembène Ousmane in Senegal to Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut in Paris and Ken Loach in Britain.

At a time when the average Hollywood film costs $50 million, it is heartening that the digital explorations of the Dogme 95 group offer something that recalls the freshness of neo-realism. But whilst those merry pranksters have arguably achieved as much through the brilliance of their marketing as through their films, it is even more heartening to see the recent release of two films that go right back to the ‘ur’ neo-realist model. Not One Less (China 1999) and The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran 1999). Very different in their tone and address, both gain from adherence to the fundamentals of neo-realism and offer teachers and students a way in to one of the important debates about cinema (and one specifically addressed in the UK by A Level Film Studies – FS5 World Cinema).

Most film histories trace the idea of neo-realism back to Jean Renoir’s work in the 1930s and particularly to his 1934 film, Toni. Shot on location in the south of France, Toni dealt with immigrant workers around Marseilles in the form of a melodrama. It represented the coming together of the French documentary tradition and the fiction film, long before the British wartime films of the 1940s. Renoir said at the time:

“My ambition was to bring the non-naturalistic elements, those that don’t depend on the play of encounters, to a style as near as possible to that of everyday acquaintanceship. Similarly with the decor, there is no studiowork; the landscape and houses are as we found them. The human beings, whether played by actors or by the inhabitants of Martigues strive to resemble the passersby whom they are supposed to represent. The professional actors, with a few exceptions, belong to the social class, the nation, the races, of their role.” (quoted in Durgnat 1974)

Here are two of the tenets of neo-realism, the location-shooting and the use of non-actors (or actors suited to their roles). Renoir’s skill in terms of ‘outdoor’ shooting was next seen to marvellous effect in the sublime short feature Partie de campagne made in 1936. Renoir then turned away from this style, but one of his assistants was Luchino Visconti, who in 1942 produced his own first feature Ossessione, an adaptation of James M.Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice set in the Po delta region of North East Italy. The outdoor scenes strongly evoked Renoir’s style but the film was censored by the Fascist authorities and because of copyright problems surrounding the adaptation, the film was not seen in Britain until the 1970s. Now, however, it is regarded as the forerunner of the Italian neo-realism that developed after 1945. Visconti was one of the great names associated with this period, primarily for La terra trema (1947), an account of tuna fishermen in Sicily struggling to survive economic oppression and the terrors of the sea.

More central to the influence of neo-realism outside Italy were Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini. De Sica produced the best known and one of the most commercially successful neo-realist films in Bicycle Thieves (1948). This film also confirmed the twin narrative requirements of neo-realist films:

• the setting reflected the social conditions of the time and dealt with social problems
• the plot was developed from a single everyday incident.

A unemployed man is dismayed when the bicycle he uses to search for work is stolen. He sets out to find it with his son. This is the essence of the neo-realist approach, formulated into a ‘manifesto’ by the scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini, who described how it was possible to write a story beginning with a simple act. “A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. They cost 7,000 lire.” From this Zavattini must create a two hour story – how? He simply asks, why does she need new shoes? How will she find the money? Does her husband know about the purchase? What else might she have spent the money on?

Trying to write a story from this kind of opening premise is an excellent exercise for students. In de Sica’s case it tended to lead towards melodrama and perhaps a sentimental film. This isn’t a charge that could be levelled against Roberto Rossellini, who certainly used melodrama, but in the context of a much more hard-headed approach to social, political and philosophical questions. Roma, citta aperta made in 1945, not long after the Nazis departed, shocked the world with its depiction of the partisan struggles in the city and Paisa in 1946 went further in its use of non-actors and actual locations to detail the struggle throughout Italy.

Rossellini became the philosopher-king of realist cinema. He became opposed to the idea of cinema as mere entertainment. He believed that scripts should not be constructed artificially, but that ideas should be “born in the film, from the subject”. Most of all, neo-realism should pose problems and make audiences think. Rossellini produced a body of work unique in cinema history and well worth exploring. His 1953 film Viaggio in Italia was written as it was filmed, incorporating local events into the story. This bewildered the Hollywood star George Sanders but inspired Jean-Luc Godard when he came to make films in the 1960s. An article by Laura Mulvey on Viaggia in Italia appears in the December 2000 issue of Sight and Sound.

Neo-realism worldwide
Jean Renoir was instrumental once more when he travelled to India in 1950 to make The River. Here he met the aspiring filmmaker and Bengali intellectual Satyajit Ray, who became an ardent supporter and effective pupil. Ray also made a trip to London where he saw several neo-realist films. When Ray eventually completed Pather Panchali in 1955 he introduced the possibility of film production in the developing world outside the commercial film industry. Ray had nothing to do with the ‘all India’ films from Bombay and his method once again turned to location shooting with non-actors and a story, although adapted from a classic Bengali novel, that detailed the lives of a single family in a rural village.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, filmmakers from Africa, Asia and Latin America trained in Paris, Rome or Moscow and returned home to make first features in countries with little film industry infrastructure. Inevitably, the filmmaking model that attracted them was neo-realism, not only because it promised a low budget and the possibility of shooting without local support, but also because of its tradition of asking questions about social conditions – perhaps the overwhelming motivation for filmmakers in newly independent countries trying to come to terms with the end of colonialism and their hopes for the future.

‘Social realism’ in the west
Realism has long been a contentious issue in Europe and North America and there isn’t space here to rehearse the whole debate, but simply to note that the most celebrated contemporary British director worldwide is still Ken Loach.

Loach himself refers to his main influence as the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, but he also acknowledges a debt to neo-realism. He always appears to have difficulty releasing films in the UK, especially when they dare to address issues. At the time of writing the release in the UK of Loach’s latest film Bread and Roses, about the struggles of immigrant Mexican workers in Los Angeles, has been put back yet again. The suggestions are that it is “not very good”. Well, maybe it isn’t his best film (and I haven’t seen it) [I have seen it now and it is up to the usual high standard], but it’s fair to suggest that Loach working at 50% of effectiveness would be better than most features that are released in the UK. More to the point, this kind of response to politically engaged work helps to make it more difficult to get new films made and released. Interestingly, the film opened in France in November on 87 screens – far more than is likely in the UK.

Loach’s current production, The Navigators, is about the effects of railway privatisation on a group of workers. Trade reports suggest that because of funding changes brought about by the Film Council, The Navigators will go straight to television without a cinema release in the UK (it will, of course, get a release in Europe where Loach is appreciated and where he has consistently found backers). Ironically, Loach and his crew were in the process of derailing a train as part of The Navigators shoot when the Hatfield crash on the GNER mainline caused four deaths, subsequently blamed on poor maintenance of the track.

Not One Less
The political force of ‘realism’, as irritant to both left and right, is neatly illustrated by the release of Not One Less. One of two films released in the UK by Chinese director Zhang Yimou during 2000 (The Road Home is currently on release), Not One Less is an almost exemplary neo-realist film that could easily have been written by a Chinese Zavattini.

In the mountains of Northern China (filmed in Western Hebei province) a teacher in a tiny village school needs to visit his dying mother. He makes an arrangement with the local mayor to leave the school and its twenty pupils in the care of a 13 year-old village girl, Wei Minzhi.

The girl tries to teach the children local songs but her attempts are disrupted by the absence of a boy who has gone to the city to seek work. Minzhi knows that she won’t be paid her bonus (of a few pounds) if he does not return, and she turns school work into a project to raise the bus fare to take herself to the city, find the boy and bring him back.

Zhang Yimou is in some ways an unlikely neo-realist, known in the UK for the sumptuous colours, breathtaking cinematography and glorious melodrama of films like Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern. He first came to notice as a cinematographer on Yellow Earth, directed by fellow ‘Fifth Generation’ film school graduate Chen Kaige in 1984.

The so-called Fifth Generation were the first filmmakers to complete film school after the end of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Their appearance at film festivals and on the world scene was dramatic – a cohort of fresh talent with high degrees of skill and wide knowledge of techniques from a traditionally strong film industry long in the doldrums. They were allowed to choose a much wider range of film subjects than had been possible since 1949, but they were still aware of the possibility of censorship and Zhang tended to select period pieces for his own directorial work.

Then in 1992 he made The Story of Qiu Ju, a contemporary film in which a pregnant young woman in the countryside is so incensed by the failure of the local bureaucracy to deal with an attack upon her husband, that she travels to the city to gain redress. This was in many ways a neo-realist piece, shot, in a much less extravagant style than Zhang’s previous work, on location in the country and the city. But its leading player was Gong Li, who even with a freshly scrubbed face and peasant dress, remains one of the most beautiful women in the world and a genuine international star.

In Not One Less, Zhang goes all the way with non-professionals. All the principals play themselves and the performance of Wei Minzhi, decidedly not ‘glamorous’, contributes greatly to the film’s emotional power. Beautifully shot and edited and with knockout performances, Not One Less shows what can be done with a simple narrative idea.

Generally well-received, the film has also been criticised for its ending. Minzhi finds the boy after making a tear-filled announcement on television and the ‘community tv’ crew from the city station travel back to the village to record the homecoming. Critics suggested that Zhang, who has had numerous run-ins with the Chinese authorities over the years, had made the film to please the government – showing life on the streets as romantic rather than a national disgrace and covering up a social problem rather than exposing it.

Exploring this view would be a good exercise for students. There is no doubt that the ending is somewhat sentimental, but it could be argued to be critical of the way the tv station uses Minzhi’s story. The film was supported by the Hollywood studio Sony Pictures and there are a number of interesting product placements (the tv gear is all Sony) including a moment when all the children clamour to spend some of their earnings on a can of coke. Is this a celebration of American junk culture or a critique of globalisation? Not One Less is highly recommended for study.

Using ‘local’ films in teaching about development issues and critical thinking in global citizenship
There are several issues for anyone wanting to use films made by non-European/American film industries with young people. The first is simply a question of availability. Relatively few films from the ‘under-developed’ world are shown in the UK. Those that are will generally be taken to be examples of a form of ‘international art cinema’ – they were not made for a popular audience at home, but for an art audience around the world (or they are made for the home audience, but fail to get screened in competition with more commercial films from abroad). These films are ‘difficult’ for most audiences, simply because they do not conform to the conventions of popular entertainment cinema, either Hollywood, Hong Kong, Bombay Cinema etc. In the UK, such films generally play to older, more middle class audiences.

Popular films from India, Hong Kong etc. are more likely to appeal to an audience of 15 year-olds, partly because cultural differences are to some extent compensated for by familiar action, and music sequences. Unfortunately many of the ‘action films’ which might actually raise interesting social questions, such as City of God, set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s, are Cert. 18 or 15. So even though City of God would attract a lot of student interest, it isn’t appropriate. There are relatively few films rated U, PG or 12 available and appropriate.

‘Local’ implies films conceived and produced in the country by indigenous filmmakers. Some recent films have appeared to be local, but have actually been made by European filmmakers or by exiles working with European funding, i.e. The Story of the Weeping Camel (Germany/Mongolia 2003). This is not to criticise the film as such, simply to suggest that such films are made with a European audience in mind (see the opening para of this section). In other cases, especially in relation to recent ‘independent’ films in China, foreign production deals are the only means whereby filmmakers can explore ‘sensitive’ issues – e.g. Blind Shaft (China/Germany 2004), a film about the dangerous conditions and corruption in the Chinese mining industry.

The article above attempts to introduce the main aesthetic idea to be adopted by filmmakers across the world who have little money, but who wish to explore important social questions. Following Rossellini, these are not ‘entertainment films’ in the Hollywood sense. They involve a local audience because of their ‘truthfulness’ and the importance of the issues. For outside viewers they present a problem in that the ‘spaces’ the films set up (as part of their generally slow pace) are there to allow the audience to think about the issues. Our students won’t be able to do this if they don’t have the social background. This may have to be taught separately. However, one ‘way in’ to thinking about such films is to compare them with more familiar Hollywood films and recognise how certain conventions are being used differently:

Not One Less could be considered as a simple ‘quest narrative’. But what is different about the quest here compared to Hollywood?
• A similar question: What kind of hero is Wie Minzhi? What are her heroic qualities and how do they compare to those of Hollywood heroes

Other possible films
The article above was written in order to celebrate the release of two films, Not One Less and an Iranian film The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). This latter film is not appropriate for KS4 students, but many Iranian films are, partly because they are also ‘neo-realist’ in approach. A possible choice would be The Day I Became a Woman (Iran/France 2000, Cert U), directed by Marziyeh Meshkini, a member of the ‘Makhmalbaf Film House’ (she’s the second wife of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a self-taught Iranian filmmaker who has in turn taught all his family members about filmmaking). The film has three episodes focusing on three female characters at points in their lives when they and the world’s attitudes towards them changes. The location is on the island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, just off the Iranian coast. In the first episode a young girl is separated from her childhood friend, a boy, because it is the ‘day she must become a woman’ and be separated from men. In the second episode a young wife seeks her independence by taking part in a bicycle race as an act of defiance against the men of her husband’s family. In the final episode, an old woman is bemused by the ‘consumer experience’ of shopping in the modern store by Kish International Airport. Each story has an element of surrealism or possibly ‘magic realism’.

Marziyeh’s stepdaughter Samira Makhmalbaf is actually the more experienced filmmaker, having won a prize at Cannes as an 18 year-old. Her film At Five in the Afternoon (Iran/France 2003, Cert PG) is a very sophisticated film which takes its title from a poem by Lorca and which focuses on the possibility of democracy in Afghanistan. Samira and her father have made three films about Afghanistan (one of the countries which borders Iran). At Five in the Afternoon is perhaps a less accessible film than The Day I Became a Woman, but it could be used to raise issues about a place in the news – presenting the country in a very different way to American or European news stories.

Finally, a film which is also a PG (although it does have quite a violent scene towards the end), and which could be used to complement Not One Less, is Beijing Bicycle (China/Taiwan/France 2001). Directed by a ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese filmmaker, Wang Xiaoshuai, the film directly quotes the famous neorealist film Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948) in its story about a young man from the country who comes to Beijing and gets a job as a bicycle courier. The bicycle is essential for his job and is ‘rented’ to him by his employer. After a few weeks he should be able to buy it outright, but it is stolen by a schoolboy. The film explores the struggle of the two young men to survive in the ‘new China’

Roy Stafford, 5/7/06

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