A few months ago I raved about a 45 minute Chinese documentary I caught randomly on PBS. It was easily the best movie I saw last year.
Although I downloaded a bittorrent of it, I am excited to find it on Youtube in 5 parts.
It focuses on a classroom activity of an elementary school class (probably 3rd or 4th grade). The teacher stages an election for the position of class monitor, and three students “campaign” to win the position. At first glance, the documentary appears to have a political subject, but in fact the political aspects are not as important as the social aspects. How are Chinese children being educated? How do Chinese parents take care of their children? How do children react when given an open-ended assignment where the rules are not so clear? How do parents (more aware of the political implications of the activity) prepare for it? How does an adventurous teacher manage a social experiment that seems to have gone too far (while it’s being captured on film)? How does the Chinese elementary school compare to the American elementary school?
The children’s activity is spontaneous, hilarious and thought-provoking. The helpful parents provide a glimpse of what the typical 1 child Chinese family is like. So often our perceptions of a country are shaped by its political leaders, its scandals and its violent movies; it is refreshing to see a more realistic portrayal of the Chinese family. Although the presence of the video producer definitely affected how kids behaved in the classroom, for the most part the children accepted its presence without giving it a second thought. It’s also a fun film; almost any person watching will trigger memories of how young and fresh we were when we were 8 years old. The editing and camerawork captures the group dynamics, the cliques and the habits of schoolchildren: the girl jumping up to erase the chalkboard, the boy playing around with a bottle.
The experiment performed in the classroom was dangerous and probably not one I would do in an elementary classroom (and it is no surprise that the Chinese government would forbid this film from being shown inside China). The three candidates have different personalities, and it’s interesting how each tries to use it for his or her advantage. It’s in essence a popularity contest, and one wonders if that’s all politics really is. Actually this classroom experiment has a lot of similarities with conventional politics: overheated rhetoric, advice from pundits, superficial reconciliations, accusations and favors.
Here’s some audience reaction to the film (including a link to this excellent American documentary about a similar elementary school experiment ), other IMDB reviews, a statement from the filmmaker, and his thoughts about how the film was made.