On the surface, young director Wang Lina’s extraordinary debut appears to be children’s film, but in the best tradition of the genre it already displays remarkable stylistic maturity and contains a sociological depth intended for an adult audience able to read between the lines. Wang Lina – of Han ethnicity but born and raised in Xinjiang – had originally planned to make a documentary about the children of her native village of Xayar, which is populated mainly by people of Muslim Uyghur ethnicity, but during the year-long shoot the film gradually assumed the form of narrative fiction created out of real situations and shot without a real screenplay using protagonists who basically play themselves – the characters in the film share the names of the actors who play them, and there is a very close relationship between the film and the reality it represents.
The story revolves around the experiences of Isa, a young boy with a sick mother, an emotionally distant father and an older brother who is about to leave the village to go to university. Although still a child, Isa already has adult responsibilities: he must take care of his mother – left a deaf-mute by a bout of meningitis, who tends to disappear from home if she is not monitored – and the family flock, because the father is working far from the village, and at the same time regularly attend school and learn Putonghua – Mandarin Chinese, the country’s official language which is a compulsory school subject whose mastery is considered the only means of social and economic emancipation in a community whose adults barely speak it. He spends his few moments of leisure with his best friends, little Kalibur and his younger brother Alinaz, the sons of a couple of cotton growers who are responsible for some of the film’s most interesting and amusing dialogue. Through the relationship between these children, their families and the discipline required by the school, the film tackles, obliquely and without a compromising ideological position, important themes such as the gradual disappearance of the language – and therefore culture – of the Uyghur ethnic group, the abandonment of rural villages for city life, the importance of education as a means of social mobility and the traditional social hierarchy and generation gap which is present in Muslim communities.
The film’s title comes from a school lesson where the children are taught that “everyone must learn to say goodbye,” and the story of Isa, separated first from his mother and later from his brother and his friends who are sent to study Putonghua in a town school, and even from a little goat he has adopted, is punctuated with painful moments which force him to grow up quickly in spite of himself. The melancholy which pervades the film is made even more poignant by the superb photography, whose powerful images capture the beauty and light of the desert landscape where the story takes place, by the film’s particularly stirring soundtrack, and by performances of extraordinary naturalness. Thanks to the director’s familiarity with the places where the story is set and her obvious affection for its protagonists, A First Farewell avoids falling into the traps typical of the “national minority” genre or of the propaganda landscape documentary and becomes a poetic tribute to a vanishing way of life: and it is this which is perhaps the implicit and definitive farewell to which the film’s title refers.