Please Vote For Me

Synopsis: Two males and a female vie for office, indulging in low blows and spin, character assassination and gestures of goodwill, all the while gauging their standing with voters. The setting is not the Democratic presidential campaign trail but a third-grade class at an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China.

Please Vote For Me, which made the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ documentary feature shortlist, packs its fleet hour with keen observations. Chronicling a public school’s first open elections – at stake is the position of class monitor – filmmaker Weijun Chen has crafted a witty, engaging macro-lens view of human nature, China’s one-child policy and the democratic electoral process as the ultimate exercise in marketing.
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Please Vote For Me 7.5

eyelights: the impact of the campaign on all the kids.
eyesores: the interference of the adults in the electoral process.

‘Please Vote For Me’ is a short documentary feature on what is claimed to be the “first of its kind” classroom election in China. This election took place between three participants in a grade three class at Evergreen Primary School, in Wuhan.

The coveted prize: the position of class monitor.

This is no small deal, being that the class monitor rules the roost, so to speak, ensuring that his/her classmates are in line, doing what needs to be done, and pushing the group to succeed against their peers. So there is much power, if not prestige, involved and at stake.

Our candidates are two boys and one girl, who were seemingly picked by their teacher:

Cheng Cheng: A chubby kid who explicitly says from the onset that his interest in being class monitor is so that he can boss people around. It’s amazing how manipulative the little bugger is: right from the start, he ensures that his friends heckle the other candidates during their presentations and he makes all sorts of alliances by making promises he may or may not keep.

Luo Lei: The current class monitor, he is extremely confident and entitled. At the onset, when his parents offer their help, he tells them that he is strong and seems to have a more relaxed attitude about the affair. That is, until Cheng Cheng starts to win everyone over – then, with the help of his parents, he starts to buy his way into the hearts of his classmates.

Xu Xiaofei: A fragile girl who is absolutely not ready for the intensity and pressure of the competition. Why she was chosen escapes me, as some of her friends seem sharper and more level-headed than she is. She barely figures in the doc, likely because the boys are more pro-active, making them more interesting subjects. At least, that’s what I got from the film – and this may be skewed by the editing.

For anyone interested in human behaviour and/or politics, this is a fascinating look at what happens to democracy when anything goes: it gets corrupted, and it becomes a popularity contest based on image, personal gain and access to wealth/resources. It was impressive to see children who have never before experience a suffrage (and likely never been exposed to democratic principles) take to this election the way that they did.

What I found unfortunate was the adults’ influence, in most cases. There is the matter of the teacher choosing the candidates, for instance, the process for which is never explained. Then there is Luo Lei’s parents essentially providing him the material means with which he could impress his classmates – something that is a horrible enough lesson to teach him, but which is also a nasty way to usurp the election for your child.

Cheng Cheng and Xu Xiaofei’s parents mostly influenced their children by pushing them when they wanted to quit and helping them prepare for debates or presentations. I was surprised by how disciplined Cheng Chen’s parents were and how hard they worked him until late at night. It explains his drive, and I was stunned by how ably he played different sides against each other until I realized that his parents coached his strategy from time to time.

I think that the key novelty of this documentary is the fact that it takes place in non-democratic China. It’s interesting to see what transpires in such a new context. But, as a film, it’s too brief to truly get a sense of what fuelled everyone involved: why was there suddenly a classroom election? Who/what inspired that? Why were the parents so interested in this exercise, having little experience with elections themselves? What was the personal impact of the election on the candidates?

Still, as a quick overview of the process, it was engrossing enough – enough so that it made the shortlist for the 2008 Academy Awards in the Documentary Feature category, but not enough to make the final cut. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone and I’m not sure how much replay value it has for me, but it is certainly a noteworthy look at what appears to be a wisp of change beyond the Great Wall of China.

Date of viewing: October 29, 2012

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