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By Bryan Newbury
July 30, 2008

Democracy, it could be argued, is a swindle. The quintessence of a bunco game perpetrated on the well meaning and cynical alike. This isn’t the exact conclusion one suspects Weijun Chen is aiming at delivering in his superlative documentary, but, for those predisposed to the notion, it is conveyed masterfully.

Please Vote for Me documents a class monitor election at Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China. It would be hard to argue that the Chinese haven’t the capacity or ability for electoral politics after this short hour. Indeed, they’re ducks in water.

The concept is novel. The third grade class will take part in an election for class monitor, as opposed to the selection that had always occurred. The candidates have been chosen by the instructors (free markets did lead to Western style democracy! Yaaay!) and put through the paces of what turns out to be a difficult, brutal and astonishingly mature election season. 

If the candidates were chosen specifically for the purpose of a film, it wouldn’t be surprising. The key to any good election… or election film, for that matter… is to have compelling candidates who fit certain profiles while belying the traits one expects and then return to home in a roundabout fashion. The characters typically break down thusly: an autocrat; a visionary; and a charlatan. It would seem that candidate Cheng Cheng fits the first and third categories nicely. Early on, he espouses the virtue of class monitor in starkly authoritarian terms. “The class monitor,” he reminds us, “gets to order people around.” Cheng Cheng does a good deal of this, both at school and at home. He is equal parts Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and Eric Cartman. Even as he begins his dirty tricks campaign against his adversaries – it took about four minutes – Cheng Cheng manages to charm and amaze with a combination of sweeping rhetoric and democratic ideals. At first, his motivations seem to be the purest of political ones, namely, that he wants the office and could use the control. As the film progresses, the child displays a personable and complex character. Few observers will argue early on that he isn’t a winner.

The next candidate, a female, is Xu Xiaofei. Unlike the two boys, Xu comes from a single parent home. We quickly see that bare knuckle campaigning just isn’t in her. Cheng Cheng deploys a sort of primitive Swift Boating during the musical competition, which leaves her in tears. She is kind and deliberate, not exactly the stuff of Tammany Hall. 

The third, and incumbent, candidate is Luo Lei. Much like Cheng Cheng, the first impression can be misleading. When discussing campaign strategy with his parents, Luo Lei insists that his compatriots should make their decision freely, and of sound mind. As the film develops, we learn that Luo defines bearing any burden through a clenched fist. There is an hilarious scene where both Xu Xiaofei and Cheng Cheng’s campaign staffers are compiling a list of Luo Lei’s shortcomings as class monitor. When Xu Xiaofei’s emissary gets around to Cheng Cheng himself, he states that a serious flaw in Luo Lei as monitor is that he beats the students too much. “We’ve got that one already,” she responds, to Cheng Cheng’s amusement.  In the course of debate, Cheng Cheng asks for a show of hands on who has been beaten by Luo Lei during his tenure as class monitor. There are quite a few volunteers. Luo Lei defends himself, as his parents suggested the night before, with very paternalistic reasoning. “Sure, I beat you, but only because you misbehave. If a parent beats his child, is it for no reason?” Cheng Cheng responds logically, stating that Luo Lei is a child himself, not an adult, then continues with a rhetorical flourish that eventually renders his opponent speechless. He has vanquished the more difficult foe, it seems.  Read the rest of this entry »


The IFC has a great opportunity for individuals with documentaries ideas.  If you have a good concept for a documentary and want to get funding for it or get it seen by decision makers, you need to check out the IFC The Back to Basics Documentary Challenge.

You are only required to submit three minutes of video with your idea for the film, but the deadline is fast approaching (August 3, 2008), so you need to get organized quickly.

IFC is looking for a short documentary or a documentary trailer. It must be a non-fiction with the subject matter of your choosing. Please note, for this contest, IFC is only accepting documentary concepts. Film submissions will be judged on the filmmakers ability to portray their unique point of view with their chosen subject matter as well as the film’s overall creative and technical production merits.

Two cash prizes are being offered: 1st prize is $7500, Runner-up prize is $2500.

To get signed up and upload submissions, visit 

Documentary Films .Net receives emails frequently from individuals with ideas for a film, but no idea how to take the next step.  This is the next step.  Use your video to pitch the idea you have always had.

Go to the IFC challenge webiste here  Opportunities to just pitch ideas are very limited.  This challenge is your opportunity.


By Umut Newbury
July 8, 2008

In the last year and a half, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama has faced a myriad of attacks against his personality, character and background. It’s not that presidential politics in the United States is getting any meaner or worse than before. It’s that Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, provides a more colorful smorgasbord of topics for the misinformation machine. During the Democratic primary campaign, one Hillary Clinton volunteer was fired for disseminating an e-mail about Obama being a Muslim. Another Clinton campaign surrogate forwarded to the media a picture of Obama from his visit to Africa, in which he was wearing traditional garb, as many leaders tend to do. The Clinton campaign never admitted or denied that it sent the photo, instead tried to spin the story by saying that “Obama shouldn’t be ashamed of wearing traditional Somali clothing.” Fortunately for Senator Obama, these campaign tactics did not work and he managed to clinch his party’s nomination. Unfortunately, the hate mail campaign against him continues on the Internet, with chain e-mails circulating all sorts of lies about who he is and what his beliefs are.

What’s curious about some Americans’ continued interest in letting the whole world know “who the real Barack Obama is” is that this is a candidate who has been particularly open about who he is and how he found himself. Obama is a prolific writer, and Dreams from My Father, his 400-plus-page autobiography, which he penned when he was 33, reveals more about him than what would be comfortable for most national politicians. Despite it being a bestseller, apparently there are still people out there who have more to learn about this “skinny man with a funny name.” Good news for those who don’t want to trudge through the first 300 pages of that book before getting to the last 150 about Kenya, there is a new film that gives a glimpse of the candidate in his ancestral home. Senator Obama Goes to Africa, directed by Bob Hercules, is a concise and balanced documentary chronicling Obama’s diplomatic trip to Africa in 2006. In 60 minutes, the film takes the viewer from Obama’s father’s country of birth, Kenya, to South Africa and finally to eastern Chad, to a Darfur refugee camp.

Obama narrates the documentary (which might give the naysayers an easy reason to question its objectivity) but the senator is quick to point out this trip is “obviously a big production.” He’s followed not only by the filmmakers but also by international news media everywhere he goes. Even under these extremely public circumstances, Senator Obama Goes to Africa is a film that manages to capture candid moments of the presidential candidate, his family and fans on the other side of the world. Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
July 2, 2008

“Time is running out for Tibet. Every day, while we are sitting here praying for world peace, inside Tibet there’s more and more and more… and more… Chinese moving in. And, as I see it, the Chinese are playing for time… and we’re playing into their hands.”

Lhasang Tsering, Pro-Independence Tibetan in Exile.

Proposed diegesis:

08.08.08. The Olympic Torch has arrived in Beijing, give or take a few hundred human rights related expulsions on the way, and the grand flame is alight in the cauldron. Without warning, an international event ensues. The countries involved immediately scramble into action mode. For the United States, it could be a further incursion into the Near East. For Germany or France, a retribution through immigration reforms. For any number of countries, any number of scenarios. 

What of the host country, then? In the paranoiac surveillance state of China, there are a hundred ways to spin the event. Whatever the case of the victim country, China can surely parlay the unfortunate event into additional repression of a chosen group. The smart money may very well be on the largely ignored Uyghur dissidents in Xinjiang province. Why not? They are Muslim, as the assailants will no doubt be, and there are no celebrities to rally on their behalf. Then again, the Tibetans have long been the face with which China’s Orwellian boot has sought to step on eternally. Again, what would stop them, provided they share the requisite intelligence on the criminals in this hypothetical situation?

If The Unwinking Gaze is any indication, it wouldn’t be His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. 

It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the Tibet situation. Aside from the vocal, well-meaning… and, likely, misguided… activists in the west – with their “Free Tibet” stickers and catchy chants in tow – any outside observer must confess an embarrassing inability to appreciate the nuance His Holiness is obliged to deal with.

Joshua Dugdale is to be commended for presentation. The film presents The Dalai Lama as he is; or, at least, as he is within the parameters of cameras and microphones. Following a brief introduction, we are given His Holiness and his supplicants without voiceover. Restrained narration is often a demerit in documentary filmmaking. In the case of The Unwinking Gaze, the viewer is rewarded greatly. Whatever frustration might arise from a seeming lack of context is subsequently acquitted in the conversation it elicits. 

A possible point of debate would be The Dalai Lama’s politic nature. From one perspective, it would appear to be callous, the proclamations of a false prophet. When listening to Tsering or the Tibetan Youth Congress quite literally shouting from rooftops, the long view of His Holiness – secure in his Dharamsala castle – it is forgivable for the viewer to share a profound consternation with the patient “Middle Way.” On the other hand, what would you have him, or his countrymen, do? As he points out, to the Chinese, the loss of 100,000 is nothing. To the Tibetans, the loss of 100 is substantial. “What of Castro, the Granma, and Ernesto Guevara?” the response comes, “Or Mao, for Chrissakes? Would the Tibetans not be served better by their own Mao, rather than this ineffectual holy man?” Whatever victory could be expected, the other side will respond, would redefine Pyrrhic. 

Back and forth it goes, like the recently minted Olympic sport of table tennis. “The Tibetan leadership in exile seeks to retain only the linguistic, cultural and religious elements of society, happy to consign its brethren to slavery. What’s that, then? As long as they retain primitive control, they capitulate to the very modern Chinese concept of Market Stalinism?” “Would you have the Lamas and the Ayatollahs equated?” comes the reply. And on and on.

This is the magic within The Unwinking Gaze. To the detached viewer, it is anything but a naïve hosanna to His Holiness. There are fifty questions for every answer, which, in this case, is the best we can expect. The Dalai Lama may well qualify for sainthood. An argument exists for his being all too human. What better praise of a filmmaker than to say that he puts this complexity at our door? 


The Unwinking Gaze: The Inside Story of the Dalai Lama’s Struggle for Tibet

Produced & Directed by Joshua Dugdale

Color, 69 minutes, 2008