Singing in the Wilderness

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.

  • Dongnan Chen
    The Trail from Xinjiang, Sound of Vision
  • Dongnan Chen
    The Trail from Xinjiang, Sound of Vision
  • Qi Zhao
    The Chinese Mayor, Last Train Home, China Heavyweight
  • Violet Du Feng
    Please Remember Me, Maineland, Confucian Dream
  • Emelie Mahdavian
    Key Cast
    "Editor "
    Midnight traveller
  • Chad Cannon
    Key Cast
    American Factory
  • Keith Fulton
    Key Cast
    "Story consultant"
    Bad Kids, He Dreams of Giants, Lost in la Mancha
  • Nanfu Wang
    Key Cast
    "Editing Consultant"
    Hooligan Sparrow, I am another you, One Child Nation
  • Jisong Li
    Key Cast
    "Director of Photography "
  • Yutian Feng
    Distribution Producer
    Janet, Two Days
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  • Runtime:
    1 hour 38 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    June 15, 2021
  • Country of Origin:
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  • Language:
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  • First-time Filmmaker:
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  • New Director/New Films MOMA & Lincoln Center
    New York, NY
    United States
    April 27, 2022
    U.S. Premiere
  • International Film Festival Rotterdam
    January 26, 2022
    Official Selection - Scopitone
  • LA Asian Pacific Film Festival
    Los Angeles
    United States
    May 6, 2022
    West Coast Premiere
    Special Jury Mention
  • Montreal International Documentary Film Festival
    November 10, 2021
    Official Selection - Dialogues Between Arts
  • Sydney Film Festival
    June 8, 2022
    Australasia Premiere
  • Doc Edge
    New Zealand
    June 13, 2022
    Australasia Premiere
  • Millennium Docs Against Gravity Festival
    May 5, 2022
    Poland premiere
    Etnomatograf Award
  • DMZ International Documentary Film Festival
    Korea, Republic of
    September 9, 2021
    Official Selection - Global Vision
  • FIRST International Film Festival
    July 29, 2021
    Official Selection - Main competition
  • Thessaloniki International Film Festival
    June 26, 2021
    Official Selection - Main Competition
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.

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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.