exit stage right for action
Writing and directing for the theatre space is a wondrous exercise in faith. Real bodies occupy the stage before real faces in simultaneous real time and work up a tangible sweat to win the hearts of their audiences. In this regard, every performance is a mating call, a potential love story between the house and the stage.
It is this bare-all, no-do-over veracity of the theatrical endeavor that compelled me to work in the medium for the last seven years. I loved the countdown, the warm-ups, the pressure, the thrilling gamble that is each and every show, the hush when the house lights are dimmed and the rustling ceases, the final inhale and of course, the audible feedback that begins to lap against the shores of the stage, invariably different from night to night. I loved how audiences cannot be fooled. They smell instantly when the work comes from a place of insecure striving or self-congratulation. They are sharks and fraudulence is blood in the water. This has been my experience, or rather, this is what I would like to believe. Theatre is an exercise in faith: backstage, we may bruise, bleed, break a leg even, but protect the house. So long as they continue watching, suspended in rapture, so long as they believe, so long as they are good, we are good. We don't belittle them. We don't swindle their money or squander their time. We respect their languages and culture by providing subtitles always, wherever needed. We do everything, anything necessary for our house. Again, I say, it's an ongoing love story.
But I made this film because true love begets more love.
My love for our audience of this musical in its nascent staged production and the powerful thing that happened as a result of the show is what propelled me to make this particular piece accessible to more people. It isn't everyday that a musical acted by middle and high school students, in the throes of the most turbulent years of inward-looking adolescence, would be outward looking, driven by compassion for a cause, not by applause. And it certainly isn't everyday that audiences would respond with such an outpouring of selfless generosity.
Long story short, The Remnant was conceived as a community-based, socially conscious piece dedicated to a small, dilapidated school for orphans, migrant and "left-behind" children of the predominantly Muslim, Dongxiang ethnicity out in one of the poorest and driest western provinces of China. It is hard to find a more marginalized group of children than the ones we came to serve. The majority of the students in this school are girls who are expected to drop out by grade eight or nine to be given in marriage or to the work force doing menial labour until they are wed. Finishing high school is a distant dream, and a university education is outlandish. When I heard about this community, they had just finally gotten a school building, tables, chairs and school supplies for the first time, after the students have spent more than eight years on the principal's living room floor. Even up to a few years ago, Principal Ma was the only all-subject, all-duty mother-teacher to around eighty of such children, whose parents are absent because of the poverty trap constructed from mass migration for work opportunities, ethnic and religious discrimination, lack of access to clean water, healthcare and education, and successive droughts that made farming increasingly difficult.
Our show became a fundraiser for Wuxingping Migrant Children's Education Center. We wanted to build them a library. All proceeds from the Beijing World Youth Academy performances totaled to about 10,000 USD and every kuai was donated towards this end. The young cast and crew had a taste of what art could inspire. They saw what they could do.
Social justice isn't the only reason I became a filmmaker, but it is one of the most pertinent reasons I chose to adapt this particular project to the screen. I have lived in Beijing since graduating from Stanford and honestly, the environment has become every bit as bad as the photojournalism in the press suggests, and worse. When I look back to compare this city to what it was when I was a high school student myself, it is tragic how quickly things have disintegrated in the last couple of years. The city we love has been stripped bare of life. Few birds have returned since they were manually evicted and nests were torn from trees for the Military Parade. You will struggle to find a single wild creature in the few parks within the Third Ring Road. The markets are full of toxic produce and questionable meats, while organic options are too pricey for us to afford. Water shortage runs rampant across the nation, and three-fifths of the rivers in China are toxic beyond easy repair. Meanwhile, every sector and industry still bears the heavy weight of trying to hit harsh GDP targets every single quarter, so that the country keeps up appearances of growth and progress. Chimneys billow, consumerism is celebrated truth, and though once in a rare while, we get blue skies and breathable air, it is usually an organized occurrence for the sake of entertaining foreign guests: dignitaries for APEC or athletes for the Asian Games, and the like. As I write, my husband and I are facing the reality of needing to mask our newborn as early as the trip home from the hospital in a few months. We have yet to find a mask that would be small enough. It is heartbreaking to see the standard of living for the average citizen fall in the name of development and rising "standards of living".
For all of the young people involved in our film who live in Beijing, this is life. Life is being unable to play sports outdoors. Life is a burning throat, smartening eyes and a constant migraine for those who are more sensitive to the pollutants in the air. Life is seeing the blue skies come in for a few spectacular, luxurious days, and realizing that blue is still possible if everyone with power could just will it and reprioritize. And when nothing seems to ever change in the capital, days are spent contemplating leaving Beijing over and over again, and somehow never being able to. It's clear: one does not simply just leave home.
The Remnant is our attempt to address something very real and personal to all of us involved, without statistics, sexy infographics and quotations from authority. Neither is the film a complaint, a first world problem for the more privileged living in the so-called third world. This concerns all of us here. This concerns you, however far away. This is about air, water, earth and the elements that make us all. This is a meditation of home, homelessness and homesickness.
Environmental advocacy is one of the driving reasons we crystalized the musical into a filmic experience we can share with more people. There is no further need to debate whether climate change is a political hoax if I can take you to some of the respiratory wards in hospitals all around China. I am speaking of air here and the film primarily addresses a global water crisis, but all of it is connected.
It has always been one of my personal aspirations to make art that is thematically accessible, emotionally refreshing and intellectually stimulating. The Remnant invites you into a primal, emotional, musically-driven world that makes no apology for being a straightforward fable of what could be ahead. Rumi, the protagonist of the film wisely notes, "Prophesies are never about the future. Prophesies show you, what's happening to you. Here. Now."
As the screen flickers to life, we are calling to you, beloved house, from the other side of the burning room we call planet. May our little project stir you and empower you to move, for the beauty of calling, "Action!" into the megaphone before each and every take will never be lost upon me. This is how I became a filmmaker. This is how The Remnant began.