chen_weijun-filmmaker-bioPease Vote For Me, the brilliant and utterly enjoyable 55-minute documentary by Chinese filmmaker Weijun Chen, is one of a series of internationally commissioned documentaries exploring the meaning and universal value of democracy. The “Why Democracy?” project, aimed at a broader understanding of the conditions of governance in different societies and cultures, brought together ten independent award-winning filmmakers from different countries around the world, including China, India, Japan, Liberia, USA, Bolivia, Denmark, and Russia, each focusing their films on issues of contemporary democracy. The ten films are scheduled for broadcast all over the world in October 2007.

Weijun Chen, whose first film, My Life is My Philosophy, was nominated for the best documentary of the year by the Chinese National Association of Broadcasters, gained international acclaim for his previous award-winning and heartbreaking documentary, *To Live is Better than to Die (2003), dealing with the effects of the Chinese government’s blood transfusion policy. For more than six months he shared the life of a family stricken with AIDS in Wenlou, a small village in central China, where more than half of the villagers are infected with HIV.

Please Vote for Me

This time, Weijun Cheng aimed his camera at a classroom and the homes of three 8-year-old third graders of Evergreen primary school in his home city, Wuhan, a modern commercial, financial and intellectual centre of 7.8 million inhabitants in the heart of China, and one of its biggest cities.

pleasevoteforme

For the first time, the third graders get the opportunity to elect their class monitor, a position previously appointed by the teacher. As the monitor, one has a certain power over his/her classmates and the duties include maintaining order, reporting to the teacher or even punishing those who break the rules. This time, as an experiment, the children get to choose from three candidates, (selected beforehand by the teacher): Chen Cheng, a charming, endearing and chubby little boy who dreams of becoming the president of China one day and who is also the son of one of the filmmaker’s fellow producers at the local TV station; Luo Lei, a tough boy who was appointed class monitor the year before and whose father is the local chief of police; and last, but not least, Xu Xiaofei, a sweet but frail, timid little girl, who lives with her single mother. Obviously, she does not have the slightest chance of competing against the two go-getters who, as expected, flatten her quickly during the election campaign and drive her mercilessly to tears more than once.

For an hour we follow the different “marketing” strategies, public speeches and talent shows in which each young candidate tries to convince his or her classmates of his or her unique competence to fulfil the role of class monitor. And captivated, we discover the secret plotting of the candidates behind the teacher’s back and the family get-togethers at home, where overly eager parents turn into hard-boiled election campaign advisors who skilfully coach their kids about how to deliver their pitch. But the parental influence doesn’t limit itself to giving advice on how to manipulate the other children. They even blatantly interfere in the election campaign by bribing the ‘voters’ with favours and gifts. For example, Luo Lei’s father, the police chief, takes the whole class for a trip on the city’s new monorail, conveniently administered by the local police, to reinforce his son’s shaky position.

As a matter of fact, the kids seem to prefer the smart Chen Cheng to the bully Luo Lei. Chen Cheng’s final speech is remarkable and outstanding for an eight year old, clearly overshadowing his rival Luo; he has undoubtedly hit the jackpot. But he didn’t count on the ambitions of Luo’s father who has already prepared little gifts for each classmate to be distributed by Luo behind the teacher’s back just before the votes are cast, assuring him the ultimate, unpredictable and utterly unfair victory.

By mirroring the process of how these children develop their strategies to win the election, this hilarious yet scary film reflects all the dirty little games we know all too well from our own democratic elections. With this brilliant twist, Weijun Chen turns the school’s first experiment in electoral democracy into a revealing political tale about how blatant manipulation, bribery, hypocrisy, and fraud win the race and lays bare at the same time how the spirit of democracy is perceived in China. But his film also provides remarkable insight into China’s new urban middleclass where China’s one-child policy entraps success-driven parents and children into merciless competition where the end justifies the means, leaving little chance of developing the skills required for a real democratic spirit.

Interview with Weijun Chen

BLL: “You work for a local TV station in Central China. How did you get involved in this documentary project “Why Democracy”, and what was the initial idea for your story?”

WC: My previous film, To Live is Better than to Die, had been screened at the Sundance Film Festival and received quite a lot of prestigious international awards all over the world, which made it easier for me to get the support for this documentary. However, when the international project coordinator (of Why Democracy, *ed.) asked me to tell a story about democracy in China, I was very reluctant to accept this assignment. It is very dangerous to tell such a story in China, especially when adults are involved. So in the beginning I didn’t have any plan of how to tackle this issue. But then I heard by coincidence from one of the three candidates, who is the son of a friend and colleague of mine, about the upcoming election of a class monitor in his school, and I decided to follow the process of this experiment.

BLL: “So how should we look at this film – it’s not really about education for democracy in a Chinese school? When you watch the whole procedure, it’s hilarious but scary at the same time. It’s hilarious because it’s all about how to pervert a democratic election. As a matter of fact, the film shows how the election process is biased by the candidates with the help of their parents. In your opinion, did this experiment genuinely intend to introduce democracy in the school?”

WC: In China there’s a very distorted understanding of the democratic process, and the way it is represented shows mostly the negative images. I want to understand how it works. The stories we hear in China about the presidential elections in the US or in Taiwan, for instance, are always just about the frauds, corruption and endless fights between the legislators. They reflect a very chaotic image of democracy. In the economic sphere and within economic organisations, people do use democratic elections to choose a manager or so. However, if you want to implement this process in a political organisation, it is not allowed.

BLL: “So apparently what goes on in the classroom reflects this negative image of a democratic process, with the parents acting as ‘coaches’ for their candidate-kids, since they actually teach them how to con, bribe and manipulate their classmates in order to be elected?”

WC: Yes, it’s very interesting. In the beginning, the candidates wanted to achieve their goal by their own means and in their own way, but then very quickly the teacher, and especially the parents, stepped in and told them they needed techniques and strategies to win the election.

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