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Survivors tell the camera the hidden tale of China's Great Famine

When Li Yaqin was 16, she ate what her family could scavenge: dandelion leaves, alfalfa, rice sprouts, corn husks ground and pressed into cakes.

As her college-age granddaughter quietly captured her on digital camera, the 73-year-old told of watching her father starve to death.

"He was sleeping on the bed and couldn't move because he was too hungry," said Li, her jet-black bangs framing an expression taut with lingering despair. "He called me to pull him up, but when I tried to pull him up, he just rolled around in bed and couldn't get up. And then he stopped moving."

The Chinese government would prefer that such stories be forgotten. Wu Wenguang won't let that happen.

Wu, 59, is often considered the godfather of Chinese independent cinema, and he plays the role with gusto: Gruff and gregarious, he wears John Lennon glasses, blue jeans and a T-shirt that reads "100% life, 0% art" above a crude sketch of a video camera.

Wu calls it the Memory Project: a grass-roots effort to build a historical archive of firsthand stories from the darkest — and, because of pervasive censorship, least-understood — periods of the Chinese Communist Party's rule.

Since 2010, the project's 200 or so volunteers have filmed more than 1,300 interviews with elderly villagers across the country, seeking to record their voices before they die.

The project's interviews are raw and personal, captured on front porches and in living rooms and kitchens, full of lengthy digressions and background noise.

"59, 58 … 59, 60.... Not a single good day in those three years. Many starved to death," Lei Xianzhen, a 70-year-old in Hubei province, says before she notices a cat off-camera. "Goddamn animal!" she shouts and jumps out of the frame.

Wu spent the early part of his career ensconced in cinema verite, finding subjects, telling stories and showing his films at festivals around the world. Then, about a decade ago, weary of the form and exhausted by the constant travel, he tried something unexpected: He let his subjects do the filming themselves.

"The Memory Project has greatly influenced me — it's even changed me," Wu says, sipping oolong tea in his spacious, glass-walled courtyard home on Beijing's rural fringes. "Now when I talk about the famine period, I no longer talk about figures, like how many people died. I've been really touched by the lives of these individuals, how they'd survive on very little food, how they'd try their best to stave off death."

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In China, history can be a dangerous subject. During Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), chaos reigned; millions died of starvation or political violence. To this day, the party strictly censors accounts of the two periods — the former is called the "Three Years of Natural Disasters" in official histories, for instance — wary that a public discussion of the causes and consequences could erode the legitimacy of its iron-fisted rule.

The Memory Project's focal point is the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, during which a combination of natural disasters and misguided policies caused millions to starve; official accounts claim that 15 million died, but independent historians have put the toll at more than 40 million.

In the last two years, President Xi Jinping has overseen what experts have called China's most intense crackdown on freedom of speech and civil society in decades: Authorities have closed scores of nongovernmental organizations and detained hundreds of critics and activists, further tightening the already limited space for free expression.

The country's independent film scene has been particularly hard-hit. Last year, authorities shut down China's most prominent film festival, the Beijing Independent Film Festival, for the first time in its 11-year history.

Yet when asked whether he's afraid of official harassment, Wu shrugs. "In a country where the red line always exists, you just need to seek out what you can do," he says. "This is a very personal way of working."

J.P. Sniadecki, a film professor at Northwestern University who has worked closely with Chinese independent filmmakers, says that the Memory Project's small scale and diffuse nature may protect it from official retaliation.

"I'd ask him about this all the time, and he would never complain about censorship or problems. He's been storing independent documentaries for years and trying to distribute them," he says. "Maybe [the Memory Project] is just too small, and it's already sort of ghettoized within small art and academic circles, so it doesn't raise eyebrows in the same way."

Wu moved to Beijing in 1988, abandoning his hometown in southwestern China's Yunnan province for a job at CCTV, China's state broadcaster, but quickly became disillusioned by the station's propagandistic bent and gravitated toward the fringes of society.

He read Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He fell in with a few young artists, writers and photographers trying to eke out a living in the nation's capital; using a Betacam borrowed from the CCTV studio, he began to film their lives. Two years later, in 1990, the footage became his first film, a searing, stripped-down documentary called "Bumming in Beijing."

Although Chinese television stations and cinemas ignored the film, the international festival circuit swooned. Festival organizers flew Wu to London, Bali and Los Angeles. As the years went by, he continued to make films and show them around the world, but once again, he found himself disillusioned.

"I've been to all these places," he said, "but after I went, I discovered I wasn't satisfied with just going, with making movies just so that other people would like them."

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In 2005, a European Union fund recruited Wu to record a film about villagers as part of a Beijing-backed initiative to bolster local election processes in China's vast, largely impoverished countryside.

Wu decided he would try something new: He would put the cameras in the hands of villagers.

He placed a recruitment ad in a Guangzhou newspaper and selected 10 volunteers from the applicant pool of farmers and migrant workers in villages across the country. With EU backing, he gave them inexpensive digital camcorders, a brief primer on filming techniques and instructions to return to their villages and shoot whatever they found worthwhile.

"The villagers shot some very interesting stuff; their technique, their dialogues, their choices about what to film, were completely different from what we so-called professional filmmakers would do," he says. "Also, they were very familiar with the local villagers. They could shoot people going to meetings, or arguing … so a lot of their material, you'd think it was all kind of weird, but very fresh."

The Memory Project grew out of this idea. The Great Famine happened so long ago, at such a remove from major cities, that it has fallen victim to the near-total historical amnesia within China, reduced to a few lines about droughts and flooding in history textbooks. Wu wanted to better understand the individual stories behind the numbers.

"He has lots of connections, he's been doing this for a very long time," says Sniadecki, the film professor. "He's a very provocative, visionary figure. There's a reason that people are drawn towards him. He's very strong and charismatic."

In 2010, Wu was teaching at a university in Beijing and running an experimental event space with some fellow artists and intellectuals. He instructed 12 of his students and six acolytes at the performance space to return to their home villages, scattered across the country, and interview elders about their experiences growing up.

Zhang Mengqi, a 28-year-old dancer at the event space, began interviewing elderly residents in her father's hometown in 2010.

She recalled being overwhelmed by the intricate details of their stories. One elderly villager told her that she'd passed a starving man on the street and noticed that he was wearing brand new shoes; when she passed the man soon afterward, his shoes were gone.

Zhang returned to the village six times and recorded more than 40 interviews.

The stories "really changed me, they changed my recognition of history," she said. "These are the details that strike me the most. History isn't about big numbers and statistics. It's about these details. That made me think."

Since 2010, the project has continued to grow. Wu has formed a partnership with Duke University, which secured a $40,000 grant from the Assn. for Asian Studies to organize, reformat and eventually digitize his archives.

As for the recent crackdowns on activists and film festival organizers, Wu remains undeterred.

"You can't simply say things are worse now, and they were better before," he says. "When were things better? I can't think of the time."

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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