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8/20/2015 by Ian Johnson
BEIJING — When the Tibetan farmer Zanta’s husband died, she was forced by local custom to move in with her in-laws, who forbade her son to attend school. Instead, she packed up and moved to Beijing, where she was helped by a relative from another lifetime.
That is the beginning of “Nowhere to Call Home,” a documentary by a foreign correspondent in Beijing, Jocelyn Ford, showing at the Museum of Modern Art this month. The film follows Zanta (who, like many Tibetans, goes by one name) here and in her hometown, where she confronts her father-in-law. Along the way, it becomes clear that the relative from another lifetime is Ms. Ford, who breaks the traditional wall between journalist and subject by becoming a friend.
The film breaks down the sometimes romantic Shangri-La view that Westerners have of Tibet, showing it to be a place with many hidebound traditions, especially discrimination against women. It also offers a shocking portrait of the outright racism that Zanta and other Tibetans face in Chinese parts of the country. And it shows how many members of minorities lack even basic education: Zanta’s sisters are illiterate, unable to count their change in the market or recognize the numbers on a cellphone. But maybe most surprising is that Ms. Ford has been quietly showing the film in China itself, eliciting admiration and unease that such a penetrating film was made by a foreigner.
“This film makes us question how we deal with people like this,” said Shi Peng, a reporter at the government news agency, Xinhua, where a screening was arranged this summer. “Do we help them enough?”
Mr. Shi said he was stunned by the inequality Tibetan women face. Zanta’s father-in-law is a violent tyrant, who treats her like his property. Zanta’s family is bullied in the village, because there are no sons, and her father is too old to fight.
In Chinese popular culture, Tibet, a population vacation destination for ethnic (or Han) Chinese, is seen as unspoiled, and Tibetans are often portrayed as simple people at one with nature, much as Native Americans were depicted in earlier decades in the United States. Despite the booming tourism, however, visitors rarely see the reality of daily life in Tibet.
Shen Ye, a 30-year-old who works at an independent record label in Beijing, said that a few years ago she spent eight months backpacking through Tibet. But a screening of Ms. Ford’s movie at a small club’s independent movie night here proved eye-opening.
“I lived in Tibet and didn’t know about it,” Ms. Shen said. “You just see propaganda. I never knew what their real lives were like.”
Ms. Ford said she had been arranging screenings at clubs, embassies and workplaces through friends to try to gauge audience reaction and prospects for releasing the film more widely in China. Her goal, she said, is to start a discussion about race in China, something almost completely absent in the Chinese media.
“It’s clear people don’t have a framework to think about these issues,” Ms. Ford said. “I’ve told them that in the United States, we began having this sort of discussion in the ’50s and ’60s, and it’s not easy, but you start somewhere.”
A veteran radio journalist, Ms. Ford worked in Tokyo and Beijing for public radio programs like “Marketplace.” But around 2008, she began to experiment with small digital cameras. She already knew Zanta, and friends encouraged her to film the migrant’s life as she sought a foothold in the capital around the 2008 Olympics.
Ms. Ford also accompanied Zanta back to her hometown, the hamlet of Barwo in the prefecture Aba. This is the epicenter of the recent wave of self-immolations among Tibetans protesting Chinese rule, with about a third of the 125 deaths from that region.
Such political concerns, however are absent from the movie — purposefully, Ms. Ford said, for fear of completely alienating Chinese viewers.
“I wanted to make this something that everyone can understand,” she said. “It’s about a woman trying to get an education for her child.”
Mr. Shi said Zanta’s problems weren’t unique to Tibetans or minorities; all migrants in Beijing face discrimination in housing. Another viewer, Dong Jun, a former journalist with state-run radio who now conducts auctions, said if it were about the self-immolations, “today’s Chinese might not be able to face it.”
Ms. Ford said she was sometimes asked by Chinese what they can do. If they try to change local social structures, are they destroying Tibetan culture?
“My answer was that you have to talk to Tibetans, start a conversation,” she said. “I’m a temporary step in that direction.”
She said her personal answer was to act as Zanta’s adviser, leading the Tibetan to conclude that the two had been related in a previous lifetime. Ms. Ford discouraged Zanta from bringing her child to work, which involved selling trinkets and jewelry near a subway stop until midnight, gently explaining that this was why the boy was falling asleep in school.
And she went back with Zanta to her hometown and helped allay concerns that the boy’s education in Beijing wouldn’t mean abandoning his grandfather.
It is especially these scenes in Zanta’s hometown that are a challenge for Western audiences, said James Leibold, a professor and ethnic affairs expert at La Trobe University in Australia, who saw the film this year while visiting China.
“It challenges that stereotype that is so common in the West that Tibet is just about a P.L.A. soldier cracking down on a saffron-robed monk,” Mr. Leibold said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.
But for Chinese, the scenes in Beijing might be most disturbing, he said, adding, “If they can’t embrace Zanta, who’s moved to Beijing, tried to learn Mandarin, tried to fit in, then what about others?”
Feng Yuan, a longtime women’s rights advocate who has seen the film, said “Nowhere to Call Home” can help, but it requires a change in Chinese attitudes first.
“It can start a dialogue, but a dialogue needs more than a good film,” Ms. Feng said. “It needs a sense of respect and equality between minorities, and right now these conditions are lacking.”