Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Please Vote for Me


Please Vote for Me
(trailer available above)
Directed by Weijun Chen, China/South Africa, 2007
32 minutes (excerpt); 58 minutes (full-length)

I watched "Please Vote for Me" on Wholphin no. 6 (a DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films, if anyone is unfamiliar) and only just now saw that the version I saw is in fact an excerpt of the full-length version. However, I remembered from one of the readings that one person's definition of a short film was a film under 70 minutes long, a criterion which this film's full-length version fits. Also, I thought it might be interesting to probe into the notion of the presentation of a short film: can an excerpt of a longer film be considered a short in and of itself, or is it inextricably tied to the longer version? Can a film's excerpt be a stand-alone short film just because it has been presented as such by, in this case, Wholphin's compilers? Just something to think about. In this post, I'm going to discuss the 32-minute version of "Please Vote for Me" as a stand-alone film since I have not seen the longer version.

"Please Vote for Me" is about a third-grade class in Wuhan, China, who are about to have their first democratic election of Class Monitor. The essence of the film can pretty much be summed up in the first 30 seconds or so. The text "Who would you vote for as President of the World?" appears on the screen, and this is followed by an interview of two young girls, one of whom is asked "what is democracy?" and the other of whom is asked "what does it mean to vote?" Both girls seem completely unfamiliar with these terms, the first responding, "I don't know. What does it mean?" and the other repeating, "To vote?" with a perplexed look.

The film focuses on the children in the class through the course of the election, but it's not only about them: it's also about their parents. In China, where families are only allowed to have one child, that child more or less becomes the center of their world. We are shown the home lives of all three candidates for Class Monitor, and each one shows overbearing parents who are completely and utterly emotionally invested in the Class Monitor race. When Cheng Cheng tells his parents he wants to drop out of the race, for example, his mother's response is, "Quit? No, you can't! Don't you want to be like President Hu Jingtao? Class Monitor is only the first step. Are you out of your mind?"

Here's where the "Who would you vote for as President of the World?" opening becomes relevant. For the kids in the class, the Class Monitor election might as well be the President of the World election. As third-graders, their class is their only world outside of the home, and they take the election incredibly seriously. The candidates buy off supporters with promises to appoint them to other class positions; they conspire to sabotage opponents' speeches, as when Cheng Cheng pressures a classmate to yell "It's terrible!" when Xiaofei gives her speech; they mobilize voters to stand up to the incumbent candidate's unjust treatment of them, such as Luo Lei's penchant for beating disobedient classmates; they employ negative campaign tactics, as when each candidate compiles lists of the other candidates' faults to use against them. But we laugh when we watch "Please Vote for Me." Why is this? For third-graders, these kids are surprisingly astute politicians, and their tactics pretty much mirror those of real (adult) politicians; maybe herein lies the humor. Chen seems to treat the adults and the kids in the film with an equal amount of respect, which makes this more like a true political documentary than a cutesy documentary about children.

13 comments:

Ryan said...

This was one of my favorite docs this year, not just because of my obsession with Cheng Cheng (it's like the first time I saw a gigapet- WHERE CAN I BUY ONE?), but for its insightful and entertaining look at the results of China's one child policy.
A few interesting implications of what has been dubbed the 'Little Emperor Syndrome': 1) these kids have the biggest buying power in China 2) the parents are completely dependent on their children after retirement 3) only about 10% of these students will be accepted by a college or university.

Johnny said...

call me ackbar, but i got a distinct "it's a trap - move the fleet away from the death star" feeling while watching this trailer. meaning that taking heavily indoctrinated communist eight-year-olds and having them experiment with democracy with little or no introduction is kind of like teaching them to swim by throwing them into a stormy sea. which might lead a child to conclude that water is just plain dangerous and swimming isn't a skill worth learning. i haven't seen full movie, but i can see it going either way: as a consciousness-raising experiment, good for the children and the films' viewers, or as a commie propaganda tool (see how upsetting democracy is to our children? why would we want to upset children?!? democracy must be a bad idea!)
i would've preferred this experiment be conducted in junior high, some time after the kids have had a chance to read both lord of the flies and 1984.

Cecilia C-W said...

I definitely didn't get the sense that this was necessarily an anti-democracy film. The kids aren't really given much direction from their teacher re: what democracy actually should be, so they kind of create it themselves. It's a story that hybridizes childhood imagination with politics, and I truly think the result is supposed to be humorous above all else.

Alli B said...

This is so depressing! In a 2-minute preview alone, you see third graders learning the fine arts of bribery and bullying. I do wonder if the presence of the cameras had anything to do with heightening the stakes, although in some ways I think children might be more impervious to the presence of a camera because they're not fully aware of its implications.

Pamela said...

I have to say I don't see anyting cutesy about the film, I find it a bit creepy. Yes, they are learning about democracy but they are at age 9 or 10 too well versed on trickery and corruption.
On a different note, I think an argument can presented for the trailer as short in it self. I'd like to know more about it and see the long form. But, the short tells me enough about the politics of the politics that this kids are experimenting with.

Steve Erdman said...

I think this is certainly a dark comedy with and underlying message. The message or point being concerning itself with the potential of children to be anything, good or evil, corrupt or just, etc etc

Sarah C. said...

I disagree, to me it feels kind of like the director is making fun of the kids, and ESPECIALLY the parents. This brings up interesting questions about responsibility and ethics in documentary filmmaking.

Drew Rosensweig said...

Along the lines of Pamela's comment, I would have to say that a trailer could be looked at as a short film in itself. After taking an editing class this semester where I had to cut a trailer for a 100-minute indie feature, there is an abundance of creative decisions and storytelling methods that have to be utilized in the creation of a trailer. Just as this trailer chooses to portray the children in a certain light, the choices facing an editor when cutting a trailer are widespread.

Cecilia C-W said...

I'm still kind of hesitant to grant trailers "short film" status. While I'm not denying that a great deal of creativity and artistry goes into making a trailer, I think the line needs to be drawn somewhere, and essentially ignoring the longer work the trailer comes from seems problematic. Maybe the issue we should be addressing is the level of respect people have for trailers as a work of art, rather than whether or not they can be short films unto themselves.

Sarah said...

yeah, this scared me too. that kids that young can act like that and understand exactly what they need to do to bribe their classmates to vote for them. I don't think I would've understand anything on this level at that age. it's as baffling that I haven't even seen kids my age (20) acting like this.

Chris said...

This movie looks awesome, and it brings up the problems inherent to exposing kids to complicated things at a young age. I'm a first grade teacher, and every day i find myself faced with explaining a new tender issue. Thanksgiving was tough ("The pilgrims and indians were friends for a little bit, but then the pilgrims took the indians land and didn't give it back. they didn't share. is that very nice?")
It's the same kind of thing, as I see it, with teaching Chinese kids about democracy. there's a lot to think about in any election, and if it's not approached from the right angle (if there is a right angle), it could dissolve into the worst kind of playground drama. as it seems to have here. kids need to be ready-- emotionally, intellectually, etc.-- to complex things.

on the other hand, can you just explain something like this? i think you need to get your hands dirty to see what it's all about, tears and all.

Jan Michael said...

A classroom full of young Chinese kids trying to implement democracy in the classroom. This film didn't grab my attention like the others did...

Bani bajwa said...

a brilliant film, another like this is post dark by shotz7

never turn an eye away from wrongdoings. a 4 minute short.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cx61UBfkKKc