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Capturing the Plight of Rural China’s ‘Left Behind’ Children

These filmmakers hope to support a mentorship program for the kids.

When Ben Keller and Oliver Brooks Hamilton, two seniors at Denison University, learned that their classmate Xinyi Hua had won a Davis Projects for Peace grant, they got right to work. Hua’s project centered on building a one-to-one mentorship program between college students and China’s “left behind” children, whose little-discussed reality is a significant issue in the country’s rural townships. Keller and Brooks, knowing they wanted to shoot a short documentary about the project, started applying for grants of their own, building a Kickstarter to fund the rest of the film’s $10,000 budget. A few months later, they were all in Longpao, a rural village near Nanjing, where they made the 18-minute “Left Behind,” released earlier this month.


Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping became the country’s leader, China has seen unparalleled economic growth (almost 10 percent per year during the first 30 years), which has aggressively shifted the financial landscape of the country. In order to compete, many rural Chinese have been forced to work as migrant workers in the city centers, where wages are much higher. Currently, China is experiencing the largest migration in human history—270 million rural Chinese people have moved to cities to support their families.

Unfortunately, because of the hukou system, a household registration program which mandates that in order to receive government services such as free healthcare and education, residents must remain in their place of birth, many migrant workers are forced to leave their children with grandparents or other family members at home. Hua hopes her program, which paired Chinese college students with a small school in Longpao, can be expanded to help serve the 61 million left-behind children throughout China.

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I spoke with Hamilton and Keller yesterday about the process of shooting the documentary short and what they hope their film can do for the left-behind children of China’s townships.

How much did you know about the “left behind” issue before you arrived in Longpao with Hua?

Keller: It’s definitely not that well known in America. And even in China, a lot of people we talked with didn’t know about it, especially in the cities. So it was cool for us to go there and learn about it as we experienced it. As we were building the story, we were also learning all the intricate details. Because it’s not stuff that is in the news all the time—we were learning it from the grandparents and the people we were talking to.

This project serves two purposes. On one side, we’re helping Xinyi’s humanitarian work, and trying to build it and propagate it through the future. And then it’s also cool for us to travel and see these things and learn so many things from these villagers for our own experience. We learned a lot from our time in China.

Xinyi Hua with children

What was it like to film in such a small town in rural China?

Keller: I’d say that going into the village and going into these people’s homes was the best part, really. To get close with some of the little kids we were working with and their parents and grandparents. Even though we didn’t speak Chinese, so we weren’t really communicating with them, I still feel like we developed real relationships with them somehow.

Hamilton: I definitely agree. The opportunity to be brought into people’s homes, when you don’t know them at all, was amazing. As a host, it’s pretty incredible of them to want to just bring two Americans into their rural home. We were the first foreigners that so many of the kids had ever seen. For them to be a host meant a lot. Just sitting in people’s homes and shooting the shit through smiles and laughter was probably the biggest payoff.

Keller: One funny story in that realm: We were the first foreigners they’d seen, and a lot of the little girls didn’t believe we were American, because they said that all Americans were black. Because that was the thing they’d received through their media. They said, “You’re not American, you’re not black.”

Hamilton: We have a black president, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Jamie Foxx. So, that was really funny. That was really funny.

What’s the status of Hua’s program today?

Keller: Her main plan after she graduates is to go back to China and to try to expand her program more. At the university we were working at, the program is still going on—the mentors and mentees in the village are still working together this whole school year. Xinyi wants to go back to use the program and curriculum that she made and go to other universities and teach other leaders how to implement the project. Because she wants to have it spread as much as she can. Eventually, she wants to integrate it into the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program, because that doesn’t exist in China. She’d love to bring the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program over to China.

Hamilton: That’s where I hope our documentary can help. We went out to China with three goals. One of them was to shed a light on an issue, one of them was to give people a voice, and one of them was to make something that Xinyi could use as a resource, so that when she goes to China, she can show this to people she’s pitching the program to. And I hope that we set her up with a good tool to propagate and disseminate the program throughout China.

We’re going to start posting the video with a donation link to a program she’s starting sometime soon, so it can be a PR fund-raising tool as well.

Filming in Longpao

This seems like a pretty massive issue. Clearly, it’s closely linked with globalization as a whole and China’s rush toward capitalism. During your time filming and studying the impact on Longpao, did you learn anything that you think could help solve the larger issue? Do you think these small grassroots efforts can be effectual?

Hamilton: So, there’s one big issue, and the left-behind children is a cause and a symptom of it. The main issue is economic disparity between urban and rural regions in China. If that weren’t an issue, the left-behind children wouldn’t be a problem, because the parents wouldn’t have to leave rural areas to escape their poverty, and to try to achieve a more reasonable financial sustainability.

What this project hopes to do is address a symptom of the larger problem. But even if Xinyi can reach every child with her program, it’s not going to solve the economic disparity between Hong Kong and rural Nanjing. But I think a positive aspect of her program is that her success isn’t predicated on the changing of the Chinese government.

Yeah. Even though it’s just treating a symptom, it’s incredibly valuable because that symptom affects 61 million kids.

Hamilton: Exactly.

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