Scratching out a living among the tall reeds

Updated: 2016-11-14 07:44

By Hou Liqiang(China Daily)

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Scratching out a living among the tall reeds

Reed cutters are filmed for the new documentary Reed People. Zhang Binbin / For China Daily

Documentary highlights toil of migrant workers harvesting Hunan's marshes

As cold winds rustle through the thousands of hectares of reeds around Luhu Lake in Yiyang, Hunan province, a group of migrant workers work their way through the marshes armed with sickles.

The itinerant reed cutters live in abandoned houses and work from dawn until dusk, as they try to pocket between 100 ($15) and 200 yuan a day to support their poverty-stricken families.

Existing at the fringes of society, these workers' stories were little known or talked about until the documentary Reed People, filmed by Chen Zengcan from the Hunan Vocational College of Art, which won second prize for a nonfiction short film at the 25th Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers Film Festival in Tangshan, Hebei province, in September.

One of the heroines of the documentary is mother-of-two Wu Taoying, whose husband is in a vegetative state due to a cerebral hemorrhage. The 37-year-old has been working the reed marshes for eight years.

"Cutting reeds is my only source of income," she told the camera, while sitting on her makeshift bed on the floor of a windowless house.

Wu has no furniture or personal belongings. What clothing she does have hangs from a nail in the crumbling wall above her bed.

Her two sons, whose ages are not disclosed in the film, have been left in the care of their 80-year-old grandfather. They have to cook their own meals and take care of their invalid father. "Once my sons' teacher asked how their family was and they burst into tears," Wu said. "I told them there is no need to cry as I am still with you."

Her neighbors have told Wu that a woman her age cannot continue cutting reeds forever, she said, with a smile.

"I said it doesn't matter as long as you are strong in heart. I simply think like this and don't want to think about anything else. If I work in my hometown, I could only make several dozen yuan a day. But you can make up to 200 yuan here if your body is strong enough."

The film shows the group of reed cutters, almost 60 strong, cooking where they sleep using a honeycomb-briquette stove. Most have to stand while they eat.

Wu said she will quit cutting reeds only once her sons have completed their education, but some of her fellow workers, such as Yang Changfu, can imagine few alternatives. "We have to get up around 6 am and work even when it's raining," the 63-year-old said. "If I don't work hard, what else can I do?"

The workers, whose days in the field end at about 7pm, receive 100 yuan for each mu (0.07 hectare) of reeds they cut, according to Chen Cailan, who supports a husband with cancer and a son in junior high school.

A voice-over in the documentary describes the workers as "migrant birds", and like the reeds themselves - shaken by the wind, bending but not breaking.

Chen, the filmmaker, said he had found the deprivation of the reed marshes shocking.

"There is no public transportation, I had to hitch a ride to get there - stopping everything from motorcycles to trucks," he said. "We bought special shoes with thick soles for the filming, but several pairs were still ruined after being penetrated by the sharp reed roots."

Zhang Rui, Chen's teacher and an adviser for the documentary, said she told her students to focus on the reed cutters to document the living conditions of those on the bottom rung of society.