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The Problem is More Than Deep in Dongnan Chen’s Documentary, Singing in the Wilderness

Playing at the LAAPFF 2022 at the Directors Guild of America on May 6, 2022 5:00 pm (buy tickets)

Dongnan Chen‘s Singing in the Wilderness (旷野歌声) is a very sombre look at lives of those still living at Little Well Village in Yunnan Province, China. The Miao Christian Choir found fame when they appeared on national television back around 2003, and this documentary looks at what’s come from it, for better or worse. I see their struggle for self worth and question if embracing a different religion is good for their soul, especially when there’s still individuals still struggling.

Sometime in the past during the Western colonisation of China, Christian Missionaries travelled deep into the countryside to help anyone in need. They found the Miao, a different ethnic group, and helped them overcome their anxieties concerning how the Han people (Chinese majority) treated them. Not everyone will agree that those early ministers had these folks’ best interests in heart–to unite them together in a parish to sing about their grief.

They have wonderful voices and they often kept to themselves in their own worlds and not all of them left to live a good life in the big city. The difference between what they sing for themselves and for the world is as clear as them saying, “I don’t know what these English words mean.”

Their debut had them singing a song by ABBA, and this look will get many wondering if what’s happening to these people is for the better. The council has to hire outsiders to do the work of giving them a ‘social media presence.’

This work focuses on two specific individuals, and they pretty much speak for the rest of their community.

I can’t help but wonder if they’re losing more than just their religion by adopting to Western standards. R.E.M. knows it best. To see The Miao Christian choir is now recognized as part of the whole rather than ostracised within is ironic. The elders are scared about the ghosts that may rise, and I suspect they’re not referring to their ancestors who saw only hope by accepting the offer for a better life as defined by a person that’s not from their culture. 

Singing in the Wilderness doesn’t have anthropologists explaining what’s going on. Instead, Chen is letting the moments he’s captured on film speak for itself. It’s a bold move since it’s the people’s voice that must be heard. The cameras he’s set up look at a very select group like a fly on the wall, observing, and never chastising. It’s up to the viewers to decide if there should be further change….

5 Stars out of 5

Singing in the Wilderness Trailer

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