At Evergreen Primary School, in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, an election for a new class monitor is being held for Grade 3. Three students, selected by their teacher, must persuade their classmates that they are the most capable candidate – through a talent show, a debate, and a final speech.
Director Chen Weijun details this entire process – from the children’s secret talks to the candidates’ public performances – in Please Vote for Me, which won the 2007 New Zealand DOCNZ Documentary Film Festival Award for Best Screenwriters Educational and International Medium Documentary. Please Vote for Me was also short-listed for the 2008 Oscar for Foreign Documentary. tbjkids sat down with Chen Weijun to discuss the inspiration behind his breakthrough film.
What inspired you to make this documentary?
In 2007, I was commissioned by STEPS International to make a documentary set in China. While I was considering ideas, I met Cheng Cheng, one of the three candidates in the documentary, when I was having dinner with his parents. By chance I asked him, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” He answered, “I want to be Chairman Jiang Zemin.” He then changed his mind and said, “No, I want to be Hu Jintao, because Jiang Zemin is retired.”
I thought it was a very interesting answer. At the same time, I was surrounded by the current news, where many young Chinese people are keen on taking the “world’s most important exam” (天下第一大考) – the civil service examination. This made me wonder why young Chinese people were so obsessed with being powerful leaders.
What were some of the difficulties you had making this documentary? And how did you organize the children when you were making it?
I didn’t organize anything. You cannot arrange something like this, and I would not want to. It is a factual documentary. My task was simply to record what happened. The only thing I interfered in was to tell the teacher to count the votes publicly and elect the monitor fairly. Many scenes in the finished documentary were a surprise to the teacher; they had transpired when the children were out of class. But I put tiny wireless microphones on two of the children, so we were able to capture exactly what happened.
How long did it take you to complete the documentary?
The real election lasted less than two weeks, but it took me two months to finish editing. Before you begin the real shooting, you need to let them get used to the camera and forget it is there. I moved my camera into this classroom before summer vacation. Then I spent time watching and learning about the individual children, the teacher, the relationships among the students and class schedules. I also figured out which angles would be best to shoot from at different times. After they finished the election, I continued shooting for three or four days. I wanted to record how the new monitor managed the class and what his response was after the election, just in case anything changed.
What influence do you think the documentary has had on the parents?
For some parents, I think it will make them rethink how they raise their children, and how they want their children to act.
For more information about Please Vote For Me, go to www.pleasevoteforme.org. To set up individual and group screening times, contact Beijing Channel Zero Media at 8855 0622.
Beijing Channel Zero Media
7G, Bldg 4, Meilin Garden
33 Zizhuyuan Lu, Haidian District (8855 0622)