A couple of months ago I came across the internet celebrity Li Ziqi. Li lives in the countryside in southwest China with her grandmother and posts films of her rural life. With such description no one could imagine that her YouTube channel attracted over 70m followers, mostly in China but also from other countries. From her videos, Ziqi appears to live a virtually self-sufficient/off grid existence; she makes her own furniture from bamboo and harvest the raw material to make her own clothes, i.e.: silkworm; but it was her videos making food from scratch, literally as she grows her own food, which made her famous and known as ‘an oriental lifestyle foodie’.
Li’s videos made me think of ‘The Food for Thought Project’ which is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Leicester and a group of Fairtrade and Organic farmers, in Wayanad, Kerala in South India. In this project some of the farmers also filmed their rural life, explaining who they were, what they do and how they do it. You can find some of the project’s videos following the link below:
I couldn’t help comparing the two projects as they are both in a way promoting the benefits and pleasures of rural life, which is usually perceived as a hard life and sometimes also linked to poverty. The videos also show and sometimes even teach some of the skills needed in a rural setting. Then I started questioning what made Li’s videos reach such a large audience when the content was pretty similar to the videos produced by the farmers. Below are three of the main differences I could find:
Quality: The difference in the quality of the footage is very visible. Ziqi’s videos are of cinematographic quality, which would be hard to achieve without professional equipment. Several angles were used (and possibly more than one camera), open plan, close ups, blur to focus effects, and other professional editing. Meanwhile, the farms in Wayanad used mobile phones for their footage and cheap software for editing.
Protagonist: Li is the main character of her videos. She is an attractive young woman always with subtle but impeccable hair, make-up, and posture, just like a model or Hollywood actress. Although she doesn’t speak in the videos, she is always showing her physical strength resembling a fairy-tale character. On the order hand, the farmers are on natural, more concerned with talking about their land, farming approaches and areas of expertise than the way they look.
Pace: We cannot deny that Ziqi’s videos have a relaxing feeling to it, as they always start with landscape images and sounds of the natural surroundings. This landscape theme reappears several times throughout the videos. However, at the same time, the images flick every five seconds or less, capturing the spectator’s attention. When Li is showing her skills she is always moving fast, precisely and efficiently, resembling a scene in an action move. Again, the video of the farmers either were shot in one go or with very little editing. They have a very slow pace, focusing on verbal explanation of procedures and facts.
According to Li, the idea to produce videos emerged when she found out that some people believed that rice grew from trees. She wanted to tell the world where their food came from. However, in a recent interview she says: ‘In today’s society many people are stressed, they face a lot of pressure and anxiety, I want them to relax and experience something nice to take away some of their anxiety and stress.’ I couldn’t find videos from Li which were more than two years old and all the videos available from 2018 onward have the same ‘cinema feel’ approach. So it seems that quite a while ago the focus of the videos changed from education to entertainment.
In Kerala, originally the farms produced their videos to show ‘who they really are’ to counterbalance the usual image often sold by Fairtrade of needed farmers depending on western Fairtrade product consumers. When in reality this particular group of farmers are relatively well off and only a small portion of their income comes from Fairtrade deals. However, they later realised that they could also use this resource to educate their own community about the benefits of organic farming, which is usually looked down upon, due to producing less income than chemical basis farmer. More than only dealing with representation these videos could potentially also inspire young people not to go away to work in the city in low payed jobs but instead, consider the option to embrace the rural life, which could potentially bring them more income and well being.
By doing this comparison exercise I realised that the large audience Li’s videos attracted is probably mostly due to the entertainment nature of the videos, reflected in their shooting and editing style. However, even thought that the aim of the farmers’ videos is to inform and educate, perhaps some of the ‘entertaining tricks’ used in Li’s videos could be adopted by the farmers so that their videos could reach a broader audience. Do you think this is a good idea? Or do you think the farmers would lose their authenticity by doing so?