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Chinese Visual Festival: Secondary School and Speaking Up 2
June 13, 2013
During the Chinese Visual Festival’s 30th May showings it was Tammy Cheung’s films which dominated the evening. The independent documentary film maker has made a name for herself and pioneered the Chinese Independent Film Festival in Montreal. Both her shorter film Speaking Up II and Secondary School chronicle the experiences of young people going through the school system in China and Hong Kong. The former, according to the director herself, is a more impromptu film in which primary school children are interviewed on their views on subjects such as gender, politics and their futures. Cheung said that the film was sort of made by accident, as they were filming in these schools and put Speaking Up II together as an afterthought, which means she attributes no particular significance to the questions she asked the kids, saying that they were made up on the spot with little preparation. However, there did seem to be a resonance with the gender questions and answers and Cheung admitted it was a subject she was incredibly interested in exploring.
As a non-Chinese person watching these films and as someone who has no real concept of what education is like in China, the films seem both, over my head and very informative. Of course, the mark of a good documentary film maker is being able to reconcile these two things. Any non-Chinese person watching would probably be reluctant to make assumptions but given all the information Cheung conveys, the viewer gets an interesting and comprehensive feel for what the advantages and disadvantages are. For example, something that struck me in the film about primary school children was the way in which they are made to recite an oath of support for the Communist Party in China. It speaks volumes about the one-sided politics pushed on youngsters from a young age. On the other hand, the discipline the youngsters exhibit is quite impressive; they are by no means robots. In fact, they seem quite free, especially vocally, which leads me to wonder if the British and Western obsession with quietness and sitting still is what makes our kids so disobedient.
In Secondary School the gender issue arises again but this time it is more implicitly shown in the way pupils are taught at the girls school compared to the boys school – girls are seen being taught to cook and sew whilst boys are encouraged to do physical activities and constructive subjects. A stark difference is also apparent when two drama competitions are shown. Almost all of the short stories the girls perform are about finding their ‘Prince Charming’, whereas the boys’ performances seem to reflect the desire for economic gain. Another striking disadvantage about the system appears to be the fact that there are only a certain number of places at any given school and the kids are slowly weaned out of education from their early teens, competing for places at the next level. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a sense of harmony and hope in the school system that we didn’t see in the healthcare system in the earlier festival entry Emergency Room China by director Zhou Hao. At least in Cheung’s films there seems to be some effort being made to improve the system to give these young people the opportunities they deserve.