"I'm here to show you how to use the shower and the toilet."
Xiaomei Yuan, a community supervisor, explains to the latest migrants from Inner Mongolia's villages arriving at the new luxury apartments of Ordos City. She briskly runs through the modern appliances; kettles, TVs and shopping channels. With her help these country bumpkins will become urbanites, contributing to their new city home. After vast coal deposits were discovered in Ordos the region went from being one of the poorest areas of China to one of the wealthiest. In an effort to modernise, the local government used the money to build the new metropolis - now China's biggest ghost city.
The new tenants stare blankly and silently at their large TV sets, as colourful adverts promote organic wine. Outside, the only signs of life in the vast panorama of the European-style city centre are a single car cruising in the empty four-lane roads and a lone road cleaner, going through the motions of sweeping the pristine pavements. Recent arrivals from the countryside pile off a tour bus to pose for pictures in front of vast, imposing statues of Genghis Khan, dwarfed by the skyscrapers and shell-like apartment blocks surrounding them.
Meanwhile, scattered building sites reveal that this is an urban vision very much under construction. And it's not just the buildings that need work. "Be civilised with your mouth"
, proclaims a young city spokeswoman through a microphone to a crowd of bemused onlookers and card players sitting on the pavement smoking. "Be civilised with your hands. Be civilised with your feet. Be civilised when walking, riding, driving and parking."
A young mother clutching a leaflet eventually pipes up, "you need to explain this. What is a civilised city?"
The uncomfortable response comes, "OK, we'll give you more propaganda brochures..."
"If the developers of the new city need your land it will be taken"
, explains a farmer. Slowly, option after option is worn away for the villagers, like Hao Shiwen and his wife, who would rather stay. For them the choice is an illusion. "You can survive for months without money in the countryside"
Hao says forlornly, standing among his verdant crops. "There's no need for you to grow crops"
, says Hao Shiwen's son. But without their farms, many have lost their only source of income and struggle to find jobs. For all its luxury and convenience, a life in the city is a bewildering life of dependence, rather than self-reliance. Arriving in the city Hao's wife smiles sadly. "There used to be a great river running here. Now there is an artificial lake."
Wry and revealing ob-doc at its best, A Land of Many Palaces is a fascinating glimpse of social engineering at its most extreme.
Official Selection - Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 2015
Official Selection - Doc Aviv, 2015
Winner - Best International Documentary - RIFF Awards, 2015
Official Selection - DMZ Docs, 2015
Official Selection - Documentary Edge Festvial, 2015
Official Selection - Miami International Film Festival, 2015
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