As the United States now enters the final leg of an extraordinarily long and acrimonious presidential election cycle, I can think of few political documentaries as apt as Weijun Chen's Please Vote For Me, which beat out Alex Gibney's Academy Award-winning Taxi To The Dark Side for top honors at the 2007 Silverdocs documentary film festival. Please Vote For Me documents a fiercely-contested, first-of-its-kind election in China. At stake is the highly-coveted job of Class Monitor for the third grade. The three eight-year-olds vying for the position are products of China's One-Child Policy, selected by the teacher as suitable candidates for the preeminent student leadership position. Xu Xiaofei is a bright but shy girl whose divorced mother is an administrator at the school. The son of college-educated professionals, husky Cheng Cheng hopes to be the President of China someday. The appointed incumbent Lou Lei is a bully whose parents are high-ranking police officers.
Director and cinematographer Weijun Chen spent six months with the trio and their parents before the week-long campaign season began. This groundwork really pays off. By the time the election week rolls around, everybody appears comfortable before the camera.
Each candidate is allowed two official campaign assistants. The formal campaign events include a brief introductory speech on Monday, a talent contest and one-on-one debates during mid-week, and a longer speech on Friday just before the vote. This first experiment in democracy for these eight-year-old politicians makes for always fascinating and often hilarious viewing.
In his opening speech smooth-talking politico Cheng asks his audience to support him, but if they can't support him, please pity him and vote for him anyway. Later, Cheng orchestrates a broad round of booing during Lei's talent performance, and leads the class through several refrains of "Lou Lei beats people. Lou Lei is a threat." Cheng also second guesses his supporters, and asks director Weijun Chen to question one girl regarding her loyalty and report back to him. Finally, Cheng tries to secure the support of swing voters by offering posts in his administration including Vice Class Monitor and Study Committee Officer.
Though Lei is not the orator that Cheng is, he's a consummate dirty fighter bent on retaining his position of power. He organizes a smear campaign against Xiofei, labeling her the slowest eater in the lunchroom and a rotten gossip, and with the help of his parents he tries to buy votes by arranging an all-expense paid class trip on the local monorail and by giving out gifts just before the vote. Through some unspecified promise, Lei even succeeds in gaining the support of one of Cheng's campaign assistants, much to Cheng's consternation.
Xiofei is shy, sweet, and smart, but she's no political infighter. She's brought to tears by Lei, and outdebated by Cheng. If Xiofei wins, it'll be because the voters have rejected the dirty tricks and domineering style of her two male opponents.
This 57-minute documentary naturally culminates in the classroom vote, which as structured within the film appears to be a nail-biter. My only real complaint about this release from First Run Features, other than the so-so video quality, is that the cover art reveals the outcome of the election. If you don't like spoilers, try to find a way to watch this one without first scrutinizing the cover too closely.