The new Chinese documentary “Please Vote for Me” (2007) has an irresistible arc: take a class of average middle class third-graders, give them the opportunity to vote for “class monitor;” tell the three candidates that they have to run campaigns, in order to net as many votes as they can; and let the political process run its course that is, let it corrupt, humiliate and demoralize the children just as they were led to believe they were creating “democracy.” Weijun Chen’s film which runs a mere 55 minutes has an almost crystalline purity to its ironies. Three Wuhan children are “selected” by the teachers two boys (one of whom is the incumbent monitor, and given to shoving his classmates around) and a girl, whose shy demeanor would seem to make her a dubious candidate. Right out of the gate, the campaigns become hilarious-yet-chilling mirror images of adult political activity: rather than appeal to common sense with reason and honesty, the seduction of power takes over, and the three candidates instantly resort to bullying, subterfuge, illicit coalitions and false accusations. Palm-pressing is relentless, and subordinate posts are promised in exchange for votes (including something called a “vice monitor”). A “talent show” is disrupted by heckling (afterwards the guilty candidate forces his cohorts to tearfully apologize to the victim, an act that he hopes will win him class-wide approval); debates immediately devolve into character assassinations. Behind the scenes, the candidates’ parents encourage them to fight dirty, and instruct them in appearance and substance-free speechifying. Every monstrous tendency of our political system, including, in the end, bribery, finds its way into this innocent little classroom, and there may not be a more potent new film to see this election year.
Except I’m not completely sure Chen’s harrowing film is completely nonfiction. We’re intended to swallow this bitter pill as a reflection on inevitable human nature, a kind of “Lord of the Flies” version of the caucus process (or of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man”). But if you watch the film twice, you begin to suspect that the theme began as an agenda, and the children were at least guided, if not rehearsed, in their amoral actions. The scenario is too neatly divided into familiar character types (how and why did the teachers choose these students?), the kids’ underhanded choices come too quickly, the camera is too close to intimate conspiracies, and everyone, including the parents, seem to be happily playing the role assigned to them. Such suspicions certainly evoke every nefarious news tidbit we saw come out of China before and during the Olympics, and you could make the argument that these spoiled, neo-bourgeois children are simply reflecting the corrupt modern culture in which they’re growing up. But, however devilishly deceptive “Please Vote for Me” is or is not, it’s too easy to accept the film’s implicit proposition that democracy is impossible, and all political action becomes inevitably corrupted. I think it is when we let it, and I think the kids, had they been left to their own devices, would’ve run the more pure-hearted election of eight-year-olds, as many of us did in our American schools, without an abusive incident or instance of Rovian treachery.
In documentary terms, there’s no questioning the veracity of Davide Ferrario’s “Primo Levi’s Journey” (2006) because the filmmaker’s clear-eyed, exploratory stance is evident in every frame, and he leaves our conclusions about history, evil and salvation up to us. Ferrario began with an inspired idea: follow the exact route, camera in hand, that Primo Levi helplessly took upon being released from Auschwitz in 1945, from Poland through hunks of the Soviet Union and Romania and Hungary, finally arriving, 10 months later, in Italy. Ferrario didn’t seem to have any idea of what would come of the voyage, and the resulting movie is engaging amorphous and contemplative, folding in chunks of Levi’s memoir (read by Chris Cooper) and simply observing the state of Eastern Europe as it is now, and as it both echoes and departs from Levi’s experience of it during the last days of the war. The exquisite cadaver of Communism is everywhere from the ruins of Chernobyl to the cluttered “cemetery for Communist statues,” where tourist shops hawk Lenin t-shirts and Che Guevara socks and neo-Nazis share the uneasy terrain with shopkeepers, roadside melon sellers and Andrzej Wajda. Ferrario is just traveling, not forcing a perspective, and if his travelogue in the end feels inconclusive, that’s because the historical moment he captured is, in contrast to Levi’s, still figuring itself out.
[Photos: “Please Vote for Me,” PBS, 2007; “Primo Levi’s Journey,” Cinema Guild, 2006]
“Please Vote for Me” (First Run Features) and “Primo Levi’s Journey” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.