by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Nowhere to Call Home
GIVEN THE sensitive nature of some subjects, only a documentary film can capture them since a documentary does not require much financial resources or equipment and can largely fly under the radar of authorities. Such would be the case with Jocelyn Ford’s 2014 Nowhere to Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing, detailing the life of Tibetan migrant Zanta as she struggles to provide a living for herself and her child in Beijing, a low budget documentary which Ford largely appears to have filmed by herself with minimal crew.
It would be that Zanta is trapped between two worlds in her life, having to navigate discrimination from Chinese while trying to eke out a living in Bejing and of the patriarchal family norms of Tibetan culture. Namely, Zanta is attempting to raise her child in Beijing, in the belief that learning Mandarin Chinese will allow him greater opportunities. In order to do so, Zanta must resist the abusive demands of her deceased husband’s family, who do not like Zanta’s son, their only male descendant, to be away from home.
In this, Zanta’s in-laws threaten not only violence but also social ostracization, given that by the patriarchal standards of Tibetan culture, women are considered part of their husband’s family after marriage and treated as the property of that family. Having defied the wishes of her family to marry for love, then fled to Beijing after her husband died of disease against the will of her husband’s family Zanta is deemed an outcast a result.
Thus, on one hand, Zanta faces ethnic prejudice in Beijing from a public which fears and discriminates against Tibetans—a view of Tibetans stemming from state media institutions which depict Tibetans as potential terrorists and abetted by the willingness of police to harass Tibetans. On the other hand, Zanta must face the oppressive standards of her own native culture. There would be no side one can hold up as unambiguously guiltless here. As such, Ford’s film is one which calls into question both Tibetan and Chinese culture.
Film trailer for Nowhere to Call Home
Yet Ford herself is also a participant in Nowhere to Call Home. Namely, the circumstances under which Nowhere to Call Home was filmed could not allow Ford to remove herself as a value-free observer, and so Ford quite evidently participates in the action of the documentary.
To begin with, Ford freely acknowledges that her motivations in befriending Zanta were not totally altruistic in nature, given that as a journalist, getting to know Zanta would allow her insight into the lives of Tibetans in Beijing. But it also is that, even if Ford is self-conscious about limiting her conscious interventions into Tibetan culture, her status as a female, white journalist who has befriended Zanta comes to influence the course of Zanta’s life. Chinese police, for example, are more wary of harassing Zanta given her acquaintance with a western journalist. Even Zanta’s in-laws are intimidated by Zanta’s acquaintance with Ford, although Ford states that she attempted to limit her intervention into family matters. Ford indicates in the film that Zanta is clearly aware of this effect of Ford’s presence and probably uses this to her own advantage.
As a journalist, Ford cannot reserve her judgment regarding certain practices of Tibetan culture. Ford is careful to maintain a respectful attitude throughout and she always phrases any such commentary as her personal views, with the suggestion that her logic—and that of the West—should not always be made to apply to non-western cultures. Yet in regards to the blatant patriarchy of some of the Tibetan cultural practices Ford witnesses, it would be dishonest for Ford to pretend to have no judgment. There would be no easy answers here and it would be to maintain a false pretense to objectivity for Ford to try and pretend as if she could remove herself from the events she has documented without the imposition of her own views.
But as there is this undercurrent of self-incrimination running throughout the film, it is a natural resolution for the film that its ultimate conclusion is through Ford intervening to persuade Zanta to get her father-in-law to sign a legal contract—not only the intervention of a white westerner into Tibetan affairs, but also the imposition of Chinese law into Tibetan society. Though this is a minor action and there is no real suggestion that this act accomplished anything, many documentaries would, for example, act as though the act of documenting did not in itself affect the lives of its subjects and that there were no changes in their lives after the film ended.
In this way, Nowhere to Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing is a mature film, even if one evidently produced on a shoestring budget. The film allows a poignant look into the lives of Tibetan migrants in Beijing and their plight, while presenting a complex picture of both China and Tibet.