There are certain things only animation can do, says Weijia Ma about her film Step Into The River

It won the award for the Best Animated Short at the Palm Springs International ShortFest 2021.

Screenshot: YouTube

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Animation artist Weijia Ma’s short film Step Into The River explores the social evil of female infanticide in China in the wake of the country’s one-child policy. The story, which is set in a small village nestled on the banks of a river, revolves around two young girls, Lu and Wei. The one-child policy, along with the son preference led some families to drown baby girls in the river. Both Lu and Wei are connected to the river in very different ways, making it a cradle of tragic stories.

Inspired by personal incidents and real stories, the film weaves fiction with history in its narrative. Speaking about the attitude towards girls in China and incidents of female infanticide, Weijia said, “It’s more the culture that makes these tragedies happen all the time. About the [one-child] policy, I think the attitude [towards the girl child] was there for a long-term period of time and was happening even before the one-child policy. Nowadays, it’s very rare and I haven’t heard it happening in recent years. But before the policy time, people had several children and back then, a lot of families were poor and they did not have the ability to raise all the children so some families would choose to abandon some of the babies. Most of the time, the ones abandoned would be girls.

“There is a difference in the [implementation of] one-child policy in the city and the countryside. In the city, you can really have one kid and then you need to stop but in the countryside, the policy is not the same. I believe the government considered that the [patriarchal] culture is even more intense, so the policy is that when you have one child and it’s a girl, you get another chance to have another baby. But if it’s a boy, you have to stop. So the government realized that these are old values that are very difficult to change so they modified a bit of the policy to satisfy the people from the countryside but still there were people who did not get a boy after two tries and would still want a boy, so they would hide and some of them would…move to another place to give birth to kids till they got a boy. So, that was a more complicated situation I would say,” she said.

Melding intergenerational history, personal memory, a poignant sense of loss and striking imagination, the climax of the story is deeply moving and was, in many ways, the foundation for the rest of the film. She said, “When I tried to make this film, the climax scene is the first thing that came to my mind. Later, when I worked with my production company, we fixed the script many times but this scene was always there and we did not try to change any bit of that scene so it’s a very essential, core moment of this film that first came to my mind.

“For me, although the background of the story happened during my childhood, in the 1990s, by showing that scene, I am trying to recall more history for this topic because it’s not just about one particular period of time but it’s a deep value that we carried for so many years and we actually do not know how many girls were abandoned. Since a lot of them were abandoned when they were babies, some did not even have a name so that scene is more like a memorial for all these lost ghosts.”

Step Into The River vividly portrays the world of the children, their thoughts and responses to certain attitudes in society and explores the world of adults as well, people who share a patriarchal mindset yet have resisted it in their own way. Elaborating on the significance of the film for her, Weijia said, “Since it’s based on my personal experience, the story itself means a lot to me. By finishing this film, I tried to get some relief in my own life. What also interests me is the complexity of all these characters living in this environment together. The main characters come from similar backgrounds. One survives because of nature — her elder brother died, which gave her the chance to be born. The other survived as another person saved her life. So in a way, they are both lucky in the story…The family, the grandma, adopted father...they love both these girls but they are in that culture too. The grandma would sometimes miss the [dead] baby boy and the adopted father would not allow the child to come fishing because of the culture. He too has struggled in the culture. The group of children are the sidekicks but they would bully the little girl and when they would see a dead body, they would cry and be scared. I think the complexity of these characters is something that I enjoyed while making this film.”

The film enabled Weijia to deploy the form of animation and explore various modes of storytelling. “I think most animation shorts are full of imagination. Most of them are made for children or are funny but they are animated films that address serious topics. Since my background is in animation, when I try to design a film, the form comes naturally to me but after making this film that I realized that there are certain things only animation can do. If you switch to live action it just does not work. For example, the scene in my film that’s showing the naked ghosts or even the naked dead body of a baby in the image. It will not work at all if you use live-action. You would feel it’s too harsh to look at but in animation, you would accept it and at the same time, you would take it seriously," she said.

Audiences, especially women, have liked the film immensely and have even reached out to Weijia to share their thoughts about the film. “They feel very touched and they like the idea a lot and they feel that it’s very emotional and find the final moment very sad and heart-breaking,” the animator said.

The film is on its festival run and won the award for the Best Animated Short at the Palm Springs International ShortFest 2021.

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Palm Springs Short Festival