«Singing in the Wilderness» is a documentary film by director Dongnan Chen, and you can watch it in worldwide premiere in 23rd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival on Thursday 24/06 and from 25/6 until sold out, in cinema Ellinis, and also online on online.filmfestival.gr.
After hiding in the mountains for a century, a Miao ethnic Christian choir is discovered by a propaganda official and becomes a national sensation. Two young Miaos and all the villagers must reconcile their faith, identity and love with the real world of China.
Singing in the Wilderness takes place in Little Well Village on the barren mountaintop of Southwest China. Ping and Sheng are two idealist young Miaos that belong to an ethnic minority who lost almost everything, including their written language, during the painful migrations in history because of wars with the Han, Chinese majority. Living in poverty and fears, Little Well was haunted. However, there was one thing that the Han couldn’t take away – the Miao took deep pride in singing for nature and spirituality, which is also their only oral history. With the arrival of western missionaries in the 1930s, Christian hymns brought consolement and gradually, the ghosts disappeared, as well as the folklore of their past…Then today, a communist propaganda official accidentally discovers the choir and decides to turn it into a national sensation. Together with the choir, Ping and Sheng are about to take on a journey that may reshape their future and possibly also reconnect them to the past.
On the wild mountaintop where faith, politics, and love merge, Singing in the Wilderness is an aching fable that captures the struggle of a community to maintain its own values while opening up to modernity and the larger Han dominated society. The film relates to everyone whose community was once culturally, spiritually or physically colonized and raises questions for all of us who are caught in the dilemma of money and meaning, past and present, minority and majority nowadays.
I first came to Little Well in 2014 when the choir was at rehearsal. Villagers just came back from the farmland with muddy hands and shoes. All the happiness and hardships in life were chanted in the name of God. But then I realized the seemingly peace is trying to protect a tragic secret: Miaos’ thousands of years of suffering from wars with the Han, which is universally the same experience for many minorities in China. Even “the Miao” is an official Chinese term given to them, but there’s nothing left in their memory to call themselves anything else.
So when the Han is trying to hijack the only thing they have left – singing, by turning the choir into a commercial product, I know this story has to be told. This is a film about double-colonization, when the Han took their home, the western missionaries took over their memory and then the Han came again to take over their faith and land altogether. After all that happened, who were they and who are they now? We have seen many films about communities fighting to reclaim their heritage but this is a fresh look into a community who doesn’t even remember what they should reclaim and what belongs to them. But through their singing, I feel connected to their souls.
I’ve been making documentaries about China’s ethnic minorities – Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang who came to eastern metropolises to pickpocket, Buddhist Dai who could no longer find anyone willing to sit in the temple under the economic boom thus imported monks from Myanmar, and this time the Miao Choir in the upland. For me, it was an intended escape at the beginning of every filming, to run away from the singular ideology and lifestyle in the mainstream, and to look for alternative freedom in the wilderness. But they all turned out to be the same story that resonates with the actualities in my own life.
After the failed political movements in the 80s, the disillusion for the system was soon submerged by excitement for miraculous economic development. Miracle happens to Little Well too. Farmers from a remote village get onto the stage of Lincoln Center in New York. Everyone is crazed by the boisterous celebration of success and prosperity, however below the surface, there’s an unspoken unease within all of us, just like the ghosts in Little Well.
Dongnan Chen’s debut film, THE TRAIL FROM XINJIANG, a profile of three pickpockets from China’s far west, has been widely screened at festivals, universities and museums worldwide, and though censored in China, it has become one of the most watched documentaries underground. SOUND OF VISION, an experimental short following a blind man’s exploration of New York was nominated for an Emmy award, premiered at HotDocs and broadcasted on PBS POV. SINGING IN THE WILDERNESS, her first feature documentary, is supported by Sundance, DMZ, Xining First International Film Festival etc. She is a graduate from the documentary program at New York University.