When Zhao Rongjie set off from her home in Dali to begin her latest iteration of the Breathing series, she had decided to take a deliberate step away from two years of pandemic-inspired work with silkworm cocoons (2020) and mushroom spore prints (2021) in which she had gone deep into worlds that were obfuscated and minuscule. Her 2022 project “Seeds and Seeds” is an expansive eight-part ethnographic docuseries set amidst Yunnan’s dramatic natural landscapes and diverse cultural geography. The films follow the director’s journey from the frenetic cities of modern China to the peripheries of Yunnan as she explores the symbiotic relationship between seeds, social harmony, and cultural preservation.
Episode 1 of “Seeds and Seeds” takes the audience to the outskirts of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, where Rongjie interviews younger generations of ethnic Bai and Yi farmers who must weigh the benefits of age-old practices against modern agronomics and the financial pressures of social mobility. Rongjie places the conflict between tradition and modernity at the core of this documentary series as a way to prod the audience to question the meaning(s) of progress and evolution.
Each episode of “Seeds and Seeds” is layered with sub-narratives that illuminate the evolving relationships between humans and land, food and water, place and identity, ritual and adaptation in Yunnan’s unique ecosystems and ethnographic regions. They expose us not only to a mosaic of cultures, but to the various meanings of home and the circumstances that dictate the need to either preserve or reform tradition.