Documentary Film Reviews: Nowhere To Call Home           PACIFIC AFFAIRS

6/1/2015 by Emily T. Yeh

Veteran radio correspondent Jocelyn Ford has produced a poignant and important documentary that follows the story of Zanta, a rural Tibetan migrant struggling to make a living in Beijing. The film weaves together narratives of female suffering and agency under patriarchal gender relations with the little-studied phenomenon of Tibetan migrants in eastern China, and the account of a Western outsider wondering whether and how to get involved in a family dispute that she knows she has little understanding of.

After being widowed at the age of 28 in a village in the Gyarong region of Sichuan, Zanta’s life is made intolerable by her abusive in-laws, who will not allow her young son to attend school. She refuses to remarry, as expected of women in her situation, and instead migrates to Beijing where she tries to make a living by hawking jewelry on sidewalks. There she meets Jocelyn, who happens to buy a piece of jewelry from her. Two years later, she calls Jocelyn out of the blue, asking her to take and raise her son. Zanta’s life is too difficult for her to see any other way to enable him to attend school and thus have a chance at a better life.

Jocelyn starts supporting Zanta’s son to attend school in Beijing and becomes increasingly involved in their lives. While Zanta interprets this as evidence that the two were relatives in a past life, Jocelyn questions her own role and wonders on occasion if she is doing the right thing and what it means to try to help someone else who inhabits a very different social and cultural world. Their relationship gives Jocelyn—and thus the viewers of this film crafted over four years—a much better understanding of the discrimination faced by Tibetans in Beijing. As a Tibetan, Zanta is scoffed at when she applies for a job as a custodian, and is repeatedly turned away by landlords and harassed by police.

The film culminates in a trip back to Zanta’s home region and an encounter with her dreaded, violent father-in-law, who has withheld Zanta’s and her son’s national identification cards, contributing significantly to their difficulties in Beijing. He threatens to beat Zanta’s son if he does not come visit, and once he is there, refuses to let him go. Through Jocelyn’s presence and intervention, he eventually allows him to return to school in Beijing but also expels Zanta from his clan. Throughout, Jocelyn finds very discomfiting not only the severe injustices faced by women in the region, but also Zanta’s apparent fatalism; though the trip concludes in a happy ending from Jocelyn’s point of view, it seems less so for Zanta, who finds herself with “nowhere to call home” now that she belongs neither to her former husband’s family nor her own, and lives as a perpetual outsider in Beijing.

Viewers specifically interested in contemporary Tibet may find it provocative, as I did, to consider Nowhere to Call Home in relation to Tenzin Jinba’s recently published book, In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border (University of Washington Press, 2013). Indeed, it would be productive to teach the two together in classes on China and Tibet, as well as in women and gender studies courses, as they both concern gender relations and the politics of Tibetan identity in Gyarong, but depict what seem to be strikingly different situations. Jinba dwells on the complexities of ethnic identity for the Gyarongwa, who he argues are culturally and politically marginal to both dominant Chinese and Tibetan societies. Some linguists categorize Gyarong language as a Qiangic rather than Tibetan dialect, and many Tibetans do not consider Gyarongwa “real” Tibetans, though the Gyarongwa disagree. These cultural politics make even sadder the heightened post-2008 discrimination that Zanta faces in Beijing.

Jinba’s book concerns a part of Gyarong that is the site of the “Eastern Queendom,” a legendary matriarchal kingdom used today as a local brand in competing for the ethnic tourism market. He argues that as part of this competition, local elite men in that part of Gyarong invert gender status, strategically valourizing women’s status (he calls this “self-feminization”) as a way of demonstrating their superiority to other Tibetan men vis-à-vis cosmopolitan, rather than traditional, gender norms. In Nowhere to Call Home, though, we bear witness to a diametrically opposite situation: a patriarchal culture that is violent and often abusive to women, a hyperbolic mode of traditional masculinity, rather than an inverted one. Domestic violence appears to be common, and women are severely devalued. Indeed, Zanta remarks that “women aren’t worth a penny” in the village, three of the four girls in Zanta’s own family have attempted suicide, and she herself says “If I could be reincarnated a man in my next life, I’d kill myself tomorrow.” In its depiction of actual gender relations within the families, the film provides a much-needed account of a little-told story.

More generally, the film is highly informative both about the harsh realities of life for Tibetan women in the countryside and Tibetan migrants in urban China today. Indeed, I found myself wanting to know more, especially about the thousand-some members of Zanta’s community who we learn are also trying to make their livings in Beijing, but also about where Zanta gets the wares she sells and how she is eventually able to exhibit at international bazaars indoors. In raising such questions for its viewers, the film travels far from the usual tropes of Tibetans that pervade public imaginations in China and in the West alike. Jocelyn’s own role also raises interesting questions for discussion. Both educational and moving, Nowhere to Call Home deserves a wide viewership.

Emily T. Yeh, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA