2015.01.01 // DEAN Interview Series // Jocelyn Ford: "What is representative of Tibet?"
Earlier this year documentarian and journalist Jocelyn Ford premiered her documentary Nowhere to Call Home in the MoMA's Lens on Tibet series, followed by a series of screenings at various universities including in Duke University's CineEAST series. She had time to sit with the editor-in-chief of the Duke East Asia Nexus' journal to answer a few questions and talk more about the issues around her documentary and its the reception.
A trailer for the documentary can be found at the bottom of the page.
Tenzing Thabkhe: Your film is quite unique/rare in that you have not only screened it to audiences in both China and the Western world, but you are in the process of constantly editing and tailoring it to these various audiences. Given this, what scenes/narrative arcs/storylines have you found to have the most difficulty in translation with Chinese audiences? How about Western audiences?
Jocelyn Ford: Many PRC Han Chinese are shocked by the discrimination protagonist Zanta faces. She is told “no Tibetans” when she tries to rent a house. When she goes to apply for a job she is met with ethnic slurs. These are images and narratives banned by PRC censors. Essentially, Han Chinese are told that ethnic discrimination is what happens in the United States, not in China. They can’t square what they see in my documentary with the message pounded in by state-controlled media that Beijing showers minorities with aid and privileges. For example, ethnic minorities are granted preferential treatment in university admissions and exceptions from the one-child policy – programs that generate resentment among a segment of Han Chinese who see minorities as ungrateful beneficiaries. I’ve found some older PRC audiences in particular try to discount Zanta’s feelings of alienation by Han Chinese society. Some say Zanta is misinterpreting or exaggerating her difficulties. Others say urban Han Chinese mistreat all poor farmers who come to the city to find work, regardless of their ethnicity, so what’s the big deal?
Following these reactions I added a few extra lines in the film to clarify the role police play in denying rentals to minorities perceived as potential troublemakers. The new lines underscore the irony and frustration Zanta feels when in one breath Han Chinese won’t let her rent her a room, and in the next breath one comments the PRC embraces minorities as part of one big happy family. So far I’ve found younger PRC Han Chinese are more open to the messages of injustice.
So far I’ve found younger PRC Han Chinese are more open to the messages of injustice. One student wrote in a term paper about my film that Han Chinese should stop blaming ethnic tensions on foreign governments, and reflect more on themselves.
One student wrote in a term paper about my film that Han Chinese should stop blaming ethnic tensions on foreign governments, and reflect more on themselves. Several students have volunteered to help Zanta with her business or to promote the film. I think the up-and-coming generation is ready to question the State media narrative and is hungry for credible information.
Western audiences have the most trouble understanding the importance of family and clan, and Zanta’s religious convictions and fear of curses. Zanta is at once an incredibly strong woman who is willing to fight injustices in Beijing, and a traditionalist who, back in her village, feels she should bow to a hierarchy that regards women as less valuable than yaks. Her decision not to walk away from her persecuting in-laws reflects her desire to be a virtuous daughter-in-law, and her fear of her in-laws threats to invoke supernatural forces against her son. Zanta wants to escape a patriarchal social system and live in the modern world, but doesn’t want to sever her community ties. This conundrum is faced by many who are traversing old-world cultures into the modern era, but is difficult for some westerners to process.
Thabkhe: What are the most common misunderstandings/misrepresentations of the film that you have encountered in your audiences?
Ford: There is a tendency for some to look at my film and say “it is not representative” of Tibet. My response is, “What is representative of Tibet?” Media images and narratives have failed to convey the diversity of the Tibetan experience. This is in part because Chinese authorities restrict access to Tibetan areas, and in part because of the widespread penchant for romanticizing Tibet. Few outsiders are aware Tibetans inside the PRC live in a region the size of Western Europe, spread across five provinces. One scholar has identified about 25 languages, and hundreds of mutually unintelligible dialects. Architecture, religious practices and marriage customs vary widely. Some areas practice polyandry, some polygamy, some are matriarchal. The treatment of women also appears to vary from region to region, though few, if any, have examined gender issues across Tibet. The problem is that an excessive number of films and narratives in popular culture focus on male spiritual life, and neglect the lives of lay people, who far outnumber monks. If you consider half the population is female, about half is illiterate, and the vast majority live in rural areas, not in monasteries, Zanta’s story could well be more “representative” of a common experience than many other stories and films that aren’t questioned as being ‘representative.”
The treatment of women also appears to vary from region to region, though few, if any, have examined gender issues across Tibet. The problem is that an excessive number of films and narratives in popular culture focus on male spiritual life, and neglect the lives of lay people, who far outnumber monks.
Thabkhe: How about the most unique/uncommon/unexpected receptions/answers upon viewing the film?
Ford: The universality of the film has surprised me. I didn’t expect so many in the audience to identify with Zanta and find her inspirational, regardless of their own economic background or ethnicity. People from all sorts of backgrounds— an American lab assistant from rural Maine, a South African man from a small village, a Cambodian journalist and exchange student, a Mexican government civil servant in charge of the office for gender and youth, Bangladeshi professors and a Uighur college student from a Muslim city in China’s far west have all said Zanta could be their sister, mother or fellow citizen.
Thabkhe: One of the key themes the film deals with discrimination between Han and Tibetans in Beijing, but it takes place at a low socioeconomic level. I imagine one of the more common misconceptions is that at higher/more educated & literate levels of "Chinese" society this barrier becomes erased. Do you feel that this film addresses this class-consciousness? Or, I suppose, do you think the story is told/can be told in such a way as to actually address this idea of the greater Chinese society/"greater Chinese co-prosperity sphere"?
Ford: Class discrimination is rampant in China. Zanta has told me one of her big surprises after arriving in Beijing was the discovery that Han Chinese will offer their seat on the bus to well-dressed elderly, but not to poor elderly rural migrants. She says where she comes from people offer their seats to the elderly regardless of rich or poor. At the end of the film Zanta makes an observation that causes many Han Chinese to feel uncomfortable: She remarks that Han Chinese worship the wealthy and hold the poor in disdain — an attitude she doesn’t want her son to adopt.
Interestingly, Chinese media often carry similar social critiques, but it appears Zanta’s remark is harder to accept because it is spoken by a Tibetan. If this is the case, it underscores the fact that many Han Chinese see Zanta as an “Other” or as an outsider, rather than as a fellow citizen. The film can’t address every issue, but if I find funding I’d like to create an interactive website that can include more in-depth information on class and other social issues raised in the film.
Thabkhe: If you have one message/takeaway for the young Tibetans/Westerners/Chinese watching this film, what would you want it to be?
Ford: Gosh, there are many messages in this film. If I had to choose only one, it would be the importance of cultivating mutual respect, and the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. To one degree or another all societies face common issues of discrimination, prejudice, class and cultural differences. Oftentimes lack of understanding and fear of the unknown aggravate social tension. My film conveys how two people from very different worldviews—a Tibetan and an American-- were able to overcome their differences and work toward a common goal, an education for a child. I believe better communication between Han Chinese and Tibetans about their different value systems and approaches to conflict resolution would be a productive first step toward better relations. This holds true for many societies around the world, as well as for well-intentioned people. Oftentimes people are unaware when they reach out to “help” that they are imposing their own values on the recipient. I would love for audiences-- especially policymakers who think they have an answer to another group’s issues-- to consider all of this as they watch