University City Savages (2009) Movie Review

University City Savages (2009) Movie ImageScreening at the 2012 Chinese Visual Festival.

“University City Savages” is a bold documentary which deals with one of the most topical and controversial issues in Modern China, the government’s practice of forced land reclamation. The film was directed by Wang Bang, a Chinese Film maker, independent film critic, dramatist, novelist and Multi-media artist, who as a result of making the documentary has had to flee China for the UK.

The film began shooting in 2005, and charts the ramifications of the building of a new University City in Guangzhou in South China. Construction of the project was initiated in 2003, covering an area of 17 square kilometres in an area traditionally inhabited by farmers and fishermen. After the provincial government expropriated their land, forcibly evicted them and demolished their homes without proper process of law, some of the locals refused to be moved on or accept the meagre compensation they were offered, and set up a collection of small shanty settlements. This resulted in an ongoing battle between these so-called illegal squatters (referred to by some as ‘The Savages’ of the title) and the authorities as they try to fight for what they believe to be their rights.

“University City Savages” is an intense film, tackling the issue head on, the fate of the villagers making for harrowing viewing. The way in which they are gradually worn down, first with their homes being destroyed, and then their shanty huts being knocked down by the police (who even take away things like their cooking equipment), is at times hopelessly, unbelievably harsh, and it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for them. The conditions they are reduced to, through no fault of their own, are shocking, as is their confusion at having been betrayed by the government and at finding all their efforts to resist and to seek justice thwarted at every turn. Things get increasingly dramatic as the squatters run out of options and places to stay, sleeping outside the university, and with one making a protest by climbing a tower and threatening to throw himself off.

University City Savages (2009) Movie Image

The film is also very interesting in the way it examines the interactions and relationship between the villagers and the students who attend and live in the University City. As the film shows, while there is a desire on the part of some students to know more about the area which they now inhabit, most are only vaguely aware at best of what has been going on, and even those who have concerns have been told by professors that nothing can be done. Through this, the film effectively reflects the apathy of the general public towards such cases, which are becoming more and more frequent as the exponential growth of higher education in China leads to the need for more and more such mega-campuses – some of which end up being turned into real estate projects.

As a documentary, the film is very well made, piecing together its story through a variety of different media. This proves an effective approach, with Wang Bang utilising footage (some of which was shot during clashes with police), interviews and photographs, at times held up by villagers as they relate their stories. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is one sided, with no comment or comeback from the government or police, being told entirely from the perspective of ‘The Savages’ – however, given the situation, this is by no means a fault, and though undoubtedly passionate, the film still manages to come across as balanced and objective.

A clip from “University City Savages”

“University City Savages” certainly does a great job of exploring its subject as a case study of the human cost of unchecked development and modernisation in China today. A courageous and engaging film, it shows the power of the documentary form as protest and will hopefully serve to raise awareness of such a far reaching issue.

Wang Bang (director)