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Great Famine: Uncovering China's painful past
A group of filmakers are uncovering Mao Zedong's role in the famine that resulted from the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, as Huey Fern Tay reports.

Mao Zedong, his policies and his legacy have divided Chinese society for decades, not least the Great Helmsman's role in the famine that resulted from the catastrophic Great Leap Forward.

In China it is referred to in history textbooks as a 'natural disaster'.

But now a group of filmmakers is exposing what really happened by talking to the survivors.

China correspondent Huey Fern Tay reports.
HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: They huddle around a television, 11 elderly Chinese watching and listening to their own stories of some of China's darkest days.

(Footage of elderly Chinese watching footage)
FOOTAGE TRANSLATION: So many people starved to death in 1958. In every household someone died of hunger or from illness because of hunger. My mother-in-law died, so did my grandma. My son died at 11.

HUEY FERN TAY: The old memories are still painful and for some the tears flow as they're reminded of a time known in China as the Great Famine.

This is their own accounts collected by filmmaker Zou Xueping in her own village of the years 1959 and 1961 when almost an entire nation endured extreme hunger.

ZOU XUEPING, FILMMAKER (Translation): I was a bit nervous about interviewing them because even though I'd seen them around the village while growing up, I'd never talked to them about their life experiences. I was worried they wouldn't want to talk about something that happened 50 years ago.

HUEY FERN TAY: Zou Xueping's work is part of the Folk Memory Project.

It is an initiative driven by documentary maker Wu Wenguang that aims to record on film the testimonies of survivors of the Great Famine.

WU WENGUANG, FOLK MEMORY PROJECT (Translation): In 1957 those people who were branded Ďrightistí were sent here (points to map covered in red pins). From 1959 onwards during the famine people cared even less about this place. Thatís why the death toll was exceptionally high here.

HUEY FERN TAY: Sixty-Four filmmakers taken part so far; most of them born in the 1980s with no memories of their own of the Great Famine. Together they have interviewed nearly 700 survivors.

WU WENGUANG (Translation): These memories are very, very different from what we read. Theyíre from official accounts or scholarly analysis. Itís very personal, live, raw, and sometimes you can even feel what it was like, why the experience is something that cannot be forgotten.

(Footage of people during the Great Famine)

HUEY FERN TAY: Thirty to 40 million people are estimated to have died in the great famine, regards as one of history's worst humanitarian disasters. Itís a period of China's recent past that has long been taboo. In textbooks it's referred to as the three years of natural disaster.

Outside China the blame for the famine is widely laid at the feet of Mao Zedong. His attempt to transform China into an industrialised nation virtually overnight was a catastrophe. But even today many of the survivors Zou Xueping spoke to still don't know the truth.

ZOU XUEPING (Translation): They only said there was nothing to eat. Some didn't know why. Some said it was payback for the Soviet Union.

The stories collected by Zou Xueping and others are being presented on stage as well as art festivals in Singapore and Europe.

(Footage of scene from theatre production)

FEMALE ACTOR (Translation): They scolded her for taking corn home. Why are you taking the corn home? She said there was one woman who was very fierce.

HUEY FERN TAY: For Zou Xueping the project's success belies the difficulties she has had to endure along the way. It's made the young filmmaker question her own understanding of China.

And it's put her at odds with her parents. The pressure from them to give up her work has been immense.

ZOU XUEPING (Translation): My father was worried that my work would be construed as opposing the Communist Party because in the past no one dared talk about the famine. My mother felt the money that had been spent on my university education had been wasted. They were both worried that I would get into trouble in the future.

(Footage of elderly Chinese at screening)

ELDERLY WOMAN 1: Screening this in China is Ok.

ZOU XUEPING: What about screening it abroad?

ELDERLY MAN 1: Sure Ė yes.

ELDERLY MAN 2: Thatís not very good.

ELDERLY WOMAN 2: It doesnít affect us old people, thereís nothing to be afraid of.

ELDERLY WOMAN 3: It makes China look bad. It makes China look bad.

HUEY FERN TAY: Itís now been three years since the filmmakers began collecting material for the Folk Memory Project and itís attracting ever more people to participate.

Transcripts of the eyewitness accounts of the famine have been put online so that the hundreds of millions of Chinese who are connected to the web have the opportunity to know more about what happened. There are plans for the videos to be uploaded as well.

Itís a new way of confronting China's recent past one testimony and one click at a time.
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