Columbia Film Festival

Singing in the Wilderness

Expired June 19, 2022 3:59 AM
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After hiding in the mountains for a century, a Miao ethnic Christian choir is discovered by a propaganda official and becomes a national sensation. Two young Miaos and all the villagers must reconcile their faith, identity and love with the real world of China.

Director Biography - Dongnan Chen

Dongnan Chen is an independent documentary filmmaker from Xi'an China. Her debut film, SOUND OF VISION, an experimental short following a blind man’s exploration of New York, which she worked on as one of the producers, directors and editors, was nominated for an Emmy award and premiered at HotDocs. THE TRAIL FROM XINJIANG, a profile of three pickpockets from China's far west Xinjiang, has been widely screened at festivals, universities and museums worldwide, and though censored in China, it has become one of the most watched independent documentaries underground. SINGING IN THE WILDERNESS, her first feature documentary is supported by Sundance, DMZ, and First International Film Festival Xining etc. It was selected by IFFR, Thessaloniki, RIDM, and First Xining. Dongnan is a graduate from New York University and a fellow of Sundance story and edit lab.

Director Statement

I first came to Little Well in 2014 when the choir was at rehearsal. Villagers just came back from the farmland with muddy hands and shoes. All the happiness and hardships in life were chanted in the name of God. But then I realized the seemingly peace is only trying to protect a tragic secret: Miaos’ thousands of years of suffering from wars with the Han, which is universally the same experience for most of the minorities in China. Even “the Miao” is an official Chinese term given to them, but there’s nothing left in their memory to call themselves anything else.

So when the Han is trying to hijack the only thing they have left – singing, by turning the choir into a commercial product, I know this story has to be told. This is a film about double-colonization, when the Han took their home and culture, the missionaries took over their memory and then the Han came again to take over their land and faith altogether. After all that happened, who they were and who they are now? We have seen many films about communities fighting to reclaim their heritage but this is a fresh look into the communities who don't even remember what should belong to them. But through singing, I feel connected with them.

I’ve been making documentaries about China’s ethnic minorities - Muslim Uighurs from Xinjiang who come to eastern metropolises to pickpocket, the Buddhist Dai in Yunnan who no longer have time to sit in the temples thus imported monks from Myanmar, and this time the commercialization of a Miao Choir in the upland of Yunan. For me, it was an intended escape at the beginning of every filming, to run away from the same ideology in the mainstream, and to find freedom in the wilderness. But they all turned out to be the same story that resonates with the actualities of my own life.

After the failed political movements in the 80s, the disillusion for the system was soon submerged by excitement for miraculous economic development. Miracle happens to Little Well too. Farmers from a remote village ended up on the stage of Lincoln Center in New York. Everyone is crazed by this boisterous celebration of success and prosperity, however below the surface, there’s an unspoken unease within all of us, just like the ghosts in Little Well.


  • Year
  • Runtime
    98 minutes
  • Language
  • Country
  • Note
  • Director
    Chen Dongnan
  • Producer
    Violet Du Feng, Zhaoqi
  • Cast
    Emelie Mahdavian, Chad Cannon, Keith Fulton, Nanfu Wang, Jisong Li
  • Cinematographer
    Li Jisong, Huang Jikui
  • Editor
    Emelie Coleman Mahdavian