‘Nowhere to Call Home’ is an intimate study of a mother and son struggling to navigate prejudicial Beijing while also dealing with turbulence back in their Tibetan hometown. It is a low budget film with impressively close access owing to the filmmaker’s unique relationship with the subjects.
Two years after a brief encounter with Zanta, a Tibetan widow living in Beijing, Jocelyn receives a phone call from her begging to meet. Jocelyn remembers that Zanta had wished herself dead so agrees to her impromptu request. Upon meeting, Zanta pleads for Jocelyn to take her son, Yang Qing, and give him a better life. After helping find him a school place, Jocelyn becomes close friends with the pair and documents them as they seek a better future.
American-born radio reporter Jocelyn is blunt about certain cultural complexities which baffle her and this honesty has its merits, however, there are times that her narration does feel slightly condescending or voyeuristic. What’s more, while she clearly has a deep relationship with Zanta and Yang Qing, she does not hide her fundamental desire to gain special insight into Tibet and the treatment of Tibetans in China.
Nowhere to Call Home is a film that will displease Beijing as it is undeniable evidence of the rupture between China and Tibet. The footage shows the true bias of Chinese people towards Tibetans. Prejudice towards Zanta means that she struggles to meet her basic needs and cannot find work or even rent a flat. However, we discover that it’s by no means a one-way street. When Jocelyn travels to Zanta’s hometown, Zanta’s father-in-law refers to Joyce as the ‘Chinese bitch’, apparently the worst possible slur in Tibet.
Visually, the Tibetan plateau is a fascinating subject. Particularly in comparison to the footage of urban bustling Beijing, the area appears strikingly vast and bare. Zanta’s family home is predictably rustic and the local ideas of spirituality are profound. There is a belief in clans, in which a woman symbolically belongs to her husband’s clan after their marriage. Zanta’s father-in-law is violent and abusive and is a major obstacle between Zanta and her happiness, but her spiritual belief means that she is trapped.
Wherever she goes, overbearing patriarchy oppresses her. In Tibet she was abused by her father-in-law, to whom she believes she spiritually belongs, and her family were bullied for only having daughters, whereas in Beijing the state-promoted prejudice, exacerbated after the 2008 protests, sees her humiliated and insulted. While the film shows us stark differences between Tibet and urban China, there is evidence that they are not devoid of continuity.
In many ways, the film deals with largely universal struggles. Family disputes, financial hardship, and oppressive patriarchy are issues that plague many people. Hence, it seems incredibly fitting that Jocelyn dedicates the film not only to Zanta and Yang Qing, but also to ‘everyone else who is up against the odds’.
Nowhere To Call Home is part of the Bertha DocHouse ‘The Lives Of Others Season’. It’s on at the Bloomsbury Curzon cinema on Wednesday, 23 November. Visit the DocHouse site for details.