According to legend, the Miao people’s mythical King Chiyou was defeated by the Yellow Emperor, who as the crypto-historical Huangdi, supposedly established Han supremacy throughout China.
Even if you had not heard it before, you will hear it many times throughout this documentary. The unspoken message to the Miao is clear: They are a conquered people. They will also be an exploited people when a local Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official turns a 100-year-old local A-Hmao-speaking Christian choir into a novelty act in New York-based Chinese filmmaker Chen Dongnan’s documentary “Singing in the Wilderness.”
For years, the Miao people in the southern Yunnan village of Little Well have eked out a hardscrabble subsistence living as farmers. Their main solace comes when they raise their voices to celebrate God during Christian services.
Regionally, their acclaim is such that the local Party propaganda boss, Zhang, decides to co-opt them. Initially, he builds them into an ethno-sociological curiosity for Han tourists, very much like the patronizing and culturally insensitive Xinjiang tourism sites the CCP points to when it tries to deflect charges of cultural genocide waged against the Uyghurs.
Excising the Soul
However, boss Zhang’s plans go further when he decides to take the act nationally. Suddenly, their praises to God are gone. Instead, they are singing ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” on a “China’s Got Talent”-style show. It is no exaggeration to say that the Party does its best to excise the community’s soul. Chen literally shows it happening. There is no talking-head commentary to explain the events that unfold to the audience, because none is needed.
This is dramatically reflected in Ping, a mildly “liberated” young woman in her 20s, and Sheng, a shepherd who aspires to preach. Both have an ardent Christian faith that will be profoundly challenged when they are forced to leave the choir after unhappily marrying.
Viewers can also see how Long, the choirmaster, is bullied into compliance and silence by Zhang and the Beijing experts who mold the chorus into a secular chorale group. Simultaneously, shady developers swoop in with big plans to turn Little Well into a Xinjiang-style tourist attraction, but their promises quickly turn to dust.
“Singing in the Wilderness” is a vital and timely documentary, because what it records happening in Yunnan is already being perpetrated on a much greater scale in Xinjiang and Tibet. It exposes the Han chauvinism that has led to an Apartheid-like system for the Uyghurs, who are denied the right of movement enjoyed by ethnic Han Chinese in their own homeland. “Han Supremacy” ought to be a familiar term in news reports. Chen’s film captures the mindset in action.
Yet, throughout the film, she is scrupulously honest and fair in the way she documents her subjects. Each shot is always long enough to give full context, without interruptions or voiceovers. Nobody tells the audience what to think, but we can clearly and keenly see how every Little Well villager feels.
Perhaps the greatest shame of Zhang’s schemes is musical. The truth is, the Little Well choir is genuinely stirring when they are allowed to do what they do best, praising the Lord. Their rendition of “How Great Thou Art” will lift your spirits, precisely because it is so simple and heartfelt. Yet, it is their honest faith that makes them a threat to the CCP.
It is also clear throughout Chen’s documentary that the Party has other tactics besides outright censorship that are often more insidious. Arguably, by corrupting, perverting, and subverting the Little Well choir, Zhang and his fellow Party members did more damage to their spiritual unity and conviction than if they had explicitly opposed them. Indeed, the evidence is right there in the film.
Regardless, just in cinematic terms, “Singing in the Wilderness” is pretty compelling stuff. It captures some very real personal drama, involving serious issues of faith, art, and real estate.
Very highly recommended, it screens on April 24 at the Museum of Modern Art and April 26 at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s New Directors/New Films.
‘Singing in the Wilderness’
Director: Chen Dongnan
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Release Date: April 24, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5