After Battling Chinese Authorities and a Tight Budget, a First-Time Filmmaker Emerges                                                  PBS POV

11/11/2014  by Shako Liu

Jocelyn Ford had been a foreign correspondent for nearly three decades before making her first documentary, Nowhere To Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing. The film follows Zanta, a Tibetan street vendor in China, and explores the lives of Tibetans in China, the discrimination and isolation they face, and their struggle to get an education for their children.

Ford began this project with the understanding that she would only direct. After a series of complications, she found herself not only directing, but filming, editing, and becoming directly involved with her subjects’ lives. She funded the education of Zanta’s son and confronted Zanta’s oppressive in-law and the Chinese police.

Nowhere To Call Home recently had its U.S. premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I talked with Ford about low-budget filmmaking, embracing moral dilemmas on film, and working inside China, where press freedom is limited.

POV: As a radio journalist, this is the first film you produced. What was it like to direct a documentary without a film background?

Ford: I’ve been working as a journalist for nearly three decades, and was a foreign correspondent for the public radio business show Marketplace for about 12 years. So I know a good story when I see one. But I wasn’t confident I could figure out how to work with the rich filmmaking palette of visuals, sound and graphics. And I was petrified by all the technical and business aspects of filmmaking. When I started making the film, my producer promised I could use a cameraman he hired for another project. But that fell through days before I was to go to Zanta’s remote village. The cameraman said he had a paying gig and couldn’t make it. I had no choice but to shoot myself, though I’d purchased a prosumer camera only about three months before and had no formal training. When I began the editing process I had no idea I’d get so involved in that, too. I ended up doing some of the heavy lifting because I knew best the story I wanted to tell, and I had a very tight budget. To tell the truth, I never would’ve undertaken this project had my producer not twisted my arm and promised I’d only have to direct. But by the time I ran into the many hardships I’d decided film was the best medium for this complex and moving story that challenges many stereotypes and truisms. So, I made the dive from being on the top of my game—radio—back to the bottom as a newbie, self-trained filmmaker.

POV: What was your biggest challenge in making the film?

Ford: If I had to name one filmmaking challenge, I’d have to say finance, finance, finance. If I’d had adequate funding, I would’ve been able to solve all the issues in a more timely way. I would’ve finished the film much earlier. Having said that, ?since I had very little funding, I benefited from the largesse of many talented people who volunteered their time and skills. That was rewarding in a way that successful fundraising could never be. It meant people truly believed in the story and its importance, and simply wanted to make the film happen and be part of it. Also, had I finished the film several years earlier, I suspect the Chinese public might not have been ready for it.

I’d like to mention two other challenges. My biggest overall concern was for Zanta’s safety. Although all of my Chinese friends and consultants, and even a Communist Party School researcher, said the film would not pose a risk to her—she’s just another migrant—China is an unpredictable place. There is also the unquantifiable risk posed by her fellow Tibetans. Where Zanta comes from, women are not supposed to speak out. Luckily, so far, the film has brought more good than hardship to Zanta.

The biggest artistic challenge was my role in the documentary. By the time I decided to make a film, I’d already impacted Zanta’s status both in her own community and in Han Chinese society. So, I decided to include myself in the narrative. Though some leading international broadcasters at my pitch session at Hot Docs voiced skepticism over my inclusion in the story, I took the risk. It would’ve been less honest to pretend I had not affected Zanta’s life. ?I’m delighted to say that many in the audiences have made a point of saying they find the documentary honest and fresh because I am part of the narrative. My role reveals important aspects of Chinese society, for example the privileges and positive discrimination Han China often extends to Americans and Caucasians. My character also raises important issues such as how people with very different world views can overcome their differences and collaborate, and the challenges that arise when a person reaches out to someone with fewer privileges from a culture with a different value system.

POV: What made you approach Zanta, your main character in the film, initially?

Ford: It’s difficult to know what’s really going on in Tibetan communities in China. The Chinese government tries to prevent foreign journalists from interacting with Tibetans. Yet there are about 1,000 Tibetan street vendors selling jewelry in Beijing. I thought they must have an interesting story. So one evening I squatted down to talk to one. That “one” happened to be Zanta, and it turned out she had a very interesting and troubling story. She’s a widowed mom struggling against the odds to get her young son an education. I didn’t follow up, however, until two years later when she phoned me. That phone call was the start of a most unexpected adventure together, much of which I was able to capture in real time on film.

POV: You became very involved with your subjects, and you said you kept an arm’s length. How did you balance telling the story and getting involved?

Ford: Early in my relationship with Zanta I tried not to become too involved in her life. I’d sent other children to school in China, and knew that you can never do enough for families in need. I am not a welfare agency, and I didn’t want to make Zanta think I was a personal piggy bank. It later became apparent that I didn’t need to be concerned about Zanta trying to take advantage of me. She is a devout Buddhist. She believes if she takes too much from me, she will never be able to pay back the debt, and will suffer more in her next life.

POV: You touched on a very sensitive topic for the Chinese authority, and you confronted the police a few times in your film. How did you bypass the censorship?

Ford: Chinese authorities don’t censor foreign journalists. They do, however, try to prevent foreign journalists from telling so-called “sensitive” stories in the first place. So, they make it difficult to travel to Tibetan areas, and intimidate and harass sources. Actually, I’d rather not use the euphemism “sensitive” as it could be used to validate or soft-pedal censorship of issues authorities do not want publicly discussed. I, too, am guilty of being influenced by the subconscious message to avoid “sensitive” topics. When I started the project I thought my film could never be seen in China. Then, last fall, I said, “Dang, I shouldn’t give up before I try!” I set my heart on getting the film seen at universities and small venues in China. Much to my surprise, some of China’s most “sensitive” institutions, Xinhua News Agency—the voice of the Communist Party—and Minzu Daxue, a university in Beijing for minorities, invited me to screen my film. The thoughtful Q&As suggested not a few in China are eager to tackle “sensitive” subjects.

POV: What do you want people to take away from your film?

Ford: This film has something for everyone. For international audiences, it reveals that Tibet is far from the romanticized Shangri-la often portrayed in popular culture. For PRC Han Chinese, it reveals the discrimination faced by minorities and poor migrants, and challenges widespread ideas about the minority experience. I hope some people will be inspired to find out more information about Tibet and the social issues addressed in the film, and some may take action to redress them. I hope some Chinese authorities will conclude that allowing minority voices to be heard, and allowing greater access to Tibet by outsiders, could be part of the solution to mounting ethnic strife and the recent spate of tragic violent outbursts.