“A First Farewell,” which debuted this week at the Berlin Film Festival, has secured its first sale and looks set to have a promising festival career. The movie is the first in nearly 30 years at the Berlinale to have been shot in Uighur, the language spoken in the vast western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Following its premiere in Berlin’s Generation Kplus youth section, the Chinese-made film has received 10 additional festival invitations and been sold to Italy’s Mariposa Cinematografica. Sales agent Flash Forward Entertainment says it is also in advanced negotiations to license the film to major territories including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Spain, India, and South Korea.
At home in China, the completed film, by first-time director Lina Wang, secured investment from Tencent Pictures, the filmmaking arm of China’s social media, games and video giant Tencent. A domestic release strategy has not yet been elaborated.
Xinjiang and the Uighur people are sensitive subjects for China’s Communist rulers in Beijing. The national government in Beijing has long been accused of forcing the assimilation of Xinjiang’s Muslim-majority population, and of treating Muslims as separatists or terrorists. It is also accused of encouraging internal migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang in order to dilute the native population, and of interning hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in detention camps.
Wang, who is ethnically Han but was born in Xinjiang’s Xayar County, dedicates “A First Farewell” to her hometown in a final title card and also in promotional material. The film is a touching portrait of a Uighur boy who slowly loses his innocence as his sick mother withdraws from the family, debt troubles mount, and his best friend is sent away to a better, Mandarin-language school in a faraway town.
Families fretting about educational standards for their children is about as political as “A First Farewell” ever becomes. There is no hint of Uighur separatism, religious suppression or the internment camps.
Wang originally intended to make a documentary about family loss after learning about the plight of the real-life mother depicted in the film. Instead she decided to tell the story from the children’s point of view and spent a year making the picture with amateur performers. “You cannot lie to children,” Wang says.
She also engaged top Chinese composer Xi Wen, whose credits include “Angels Wear White” and “Black Coal Thin Ice,” to provide a quiet, seamless score. The music only ever intrudes when a Uighur song plays over the end credits.
The package is a rural-set film of simplicity, unpolished characters, and visual beauty, reminiscent of Iranian cinema’s greats – Jafar Panahi or Abbas Kiarostami – or more recent titles by India’s Rima Das (whose “Bulbul Can Sing” also plays in the Berlinale’s Generations section).
“The narrative purity enchanted us at first glance,” said Massimo Righetti, founding partner of Mariposa, which bought the Italian rights to the film. “The delicate sensitivity of this journey through the environments, landscapes, culture and characters of this region in northwestern China brings on the big screen a story with an intense and polite charm, full of humanity.”
Wang presents a verdant, attractive picture of Xinjiang far different from the harsh deserts for which the province is known. “I wanted to present the real Xinjiang,” she told Variety. She is scripting her sophomore film, also to be set in the region, but can’t decide whether it will be a feature or a documentary.