Pease 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.
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.
WC: Right. But to get a better understanding you should also take into consideration the whole context and, in particular, the family planning policy in China. Each family has only one child, and each child is under the influence of six adults – the parents and grandparents on both sides. The result of this is that the children have very little interaction with other children of the same age group before they go to school, so at a very early age they develop an adult language and a very mature way of thinking. This little chubby guy, the son of my friends, for example, told me that he wants to become the president of China. I did some research and found out that 60% to 70 % of children between 6 and 8 want to work for the government later on or become a government official!
Filming the election process among children shows actually a close resemblance to the same process in an adult population. I think the difference would be minimal. These kids are like a mirror, so it’s a true depiction. But still, they are children, so on the other hand, you would not get such a realistic depiction if you would try to do the same film with adults. Also, it is very hard, if not impossible, to shoot a film in China about this kind of election process with adults since mostly you have only one candidate for a chairmanship position.
BLL: “So what was your idea behind filming this experiment?”
WC: For me, the issue of this project (“Why Democracy”, *ed.) is not about criticising the existing democratic system in these countries that were selected, but rather about what people think about the democratic process, and how they think it works – like in my film, what it means for these children. For me, it is far more important to tell a story about the underlying spirit that is reflected in this process.
BLL: “It is true, it’s a brilliant idea to develop these ideas through the experience and the eyes of third graders. But how did they perceive this experiment? What were their feelings afterwards, and especially those who were defeated? I mean, they try very hard, but in the end the boy who wins the elections succeeds by bribing his classmates. Did the children discuss these issues after the election?”
WC: Actually, this kind of selection happens all the time in the school system. There are already two parallel systems in school: on the one hand, you have the school administration with its class monitors or captains and, on the other, you have the party level, the communist youth organisation with its party members and leaders. It’s even a far more ferocious competition process – you have to give speeches, you have to perform, etc., to get one of the very rare leading positions…
BLL: “So Chinese children have to get used to such situations early on?”
WC: Yes, and they would even compete for much less important positions. In the past, the kid that was supposed to become a class monitor was appointed by the teacher. And of course, the parents would come and try to influence or even bribe him, just to get their child into this position. Every parent would want their child to become a captain, because it gives him a chance to experience leadership and prepare him for the future. You’ve seen this father in the film who takes the whole class for a ride on the monorail and showers them with gifts. In China, this behaviour is perceived as a common expression of normal values, just like the end justifies the means.
BLL: “What struck me immediately in your film is how easily and naturally the children and their parents express their feelings. Is it common in China for children to act so freely?”
WC: Well, first of all, I think, in China, we don’t have this notion of privacy like in Europe perhaps. But don’t forget, I’ve also spent quite a long time with all these children in their class. It took us a whole year to make this film, and during the first half year I spent most of my time with the children just to get to know them and to let them become familiar with my presence. Only then, after six months, did the production team step in, but after two days the children were already used to them and ignored them.
Technology also played a great role. We had these wireless devices and could easily communicate with the children during the class hours, so even the teacher wasn’t always aware of what was going on or knew that we were talking to them.
BLL: “And what about the parents – how did they feel? They also were acting very freely in front of the camera, exposing their points of view and strategies, including fraud and bribery.”
WC: Once again, this has to do with the one-child policy. Since there’s only one kid in the family, there is so much attention and expectation from the parents concerning their future. It’s a quite heavy burden. It is also linked to a social security system that depends entirely on the children. So the expectations of parents towards the success of their children are enormous. You must understand that we have this widespread opinion in China that one’s own success is not true success. You’re really successful only if your child becomes really successful. When a young couple gets married, they have the whole family looking at them, and they have to support about twelve people – parents and grandparents, six people on each side!
BLL: “Well, I was raised where parents advocate the idea that you should love your children as they are, gifted and successful or not …”
WC: I must say it crossed my mind several times to emigrate to the West, not for myself, because I may not be able to do what I do in China, being as productive as I am here. But I always think about my daughter, about this tremendous pressure on her shoulders and all these expectations hanging over her head and would love to see her living a much freer life. In China, you just can’t free yourself from this pressure. You live in constant stress that affects the whole family…