Documentaries falling into the human rights category can be tricky. The strength of the problem in focus tends to take over all other aspects that make a documentary a good film. Is it also the case of Badass Beauty Queen by Theresa Kowall-Shipp? Let’s have a look.
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The core of Badass Beauty Queen is Anastasia Lin, whose monicker became the title of the film. Lin, now Canadian, was born in Hunan Province of China. In her 13 years of age, she moved to Canada, and a child that had memorized communist anthems grew up to be an adult fed up with Chinese government doing whatever it wants. As an actress, Lin took up roles in stories committed to the cause. Being in close contact with the emmigrés and refugees from China, Lin realized she needed a stronger voice. Inspired by Miss World Canada 2003 Nazanin-Afshin-Jam who has been an avid human right activist, Lin decided to participate in the acclaimed pageant to gain a forum to speak and be heard.
The film focuses on Anastasia Lin’s Miss World Canada years, stretching out to her past and plans for the future. It follows her crowning in Canada, as well as her fight to enter China for the competition 2015 finale, or her battle with Miss World Organization that has continued in 2016, as she was given an exemption and permission to keep the crown for another year and attend the Miss World Finale in 2016. During that time, not only Lin’s voice became louder, but also the voices and actions – threats to Lin’s family in China – of those who have found it uncomfortable.
The words of Anastasia Lin might not be super original or bring any news for those who at least scan the general human rights situation around the world, yet are important. Yes, it is important to be reminded that you don’t need to be a beauty queen to care and to speak up, that if you have the liberty of the free speech you should use it wisely or that the international community should not uphold the bully’s empty phrases and lies, so to speak.
Badass Beauty Queen, on one hand, manages to follow and voice these ideas, on the other, it rather falls apart by wanting to display too many struggles Lin has to face. Besides Lin’s path into the spotlight itself, Badass Beauty Queen aims to uncover the corruption by Chinese money in seemingly independent Miss World Organization or the threats the Chinese living abroad face even after acquiring new citizenship. All that while still following Lin’s journey as both, Miss World Canada 2015 (2016) and a human rights activist focusing on religious freedom, illegal organ harvesting in China, and the Chinese ways to shut people – including Lin – down.
The film-making team opted for a basic, rather television portrait format of the documentary with lots of spoken words and explaining. The information is divided and reiterated in Lin’s monologue voice-overs mostly accompanying the pre-existing footage, talking heads and headline-like texts appearing written on the screen. The choice of speakers varies, and we get journalists of important US newspaper, researchers on the state of human rights in China, as well as Lin’s colleagues and friends. While the former speak for her bravery despite the dilemmas over the threats to her family, add weight to her words and, in a way, professionally vouch for Lin, her friends aim to add to the personal aspect of the story.
There also lie the main pitfalls of Badass Beauty Queen. The film simply talks too much, urges too much, insists too much. The friends are arranged in a neutral space that undermines the goal of their presence – to add something personal; the way they are shown reminds more of questioning than of an interview. The ever-present word layering one statement over another, repetition of the same information in the voice-over, written text, and by one of the protagonists weakens it. The digressions to the HR issues Lin is advocating for are weak, unsubstantiated, even if for good reasons; a quite interesting line with the Miss World Organisation is left unexploited.
Badass Beauty Queen speaks of important issues – not only of the evil-doing of the Chinese government but also of the need of everyone’s attention and involvement if only in small everyday choices or the liberty of using one’s privileges. It might be one of the tools to keep Lin at the sight as a counterbalance to the easily believable threats to her family in China. And yes, it is one of the films to be screened in the presence of the protagonists with Q & A. Yet, as a documentary film, Badass Beauty Queen lacks a clear focus and perhaps a bit of cruelty during the editing process leaving too many dead-ends. It aims to say a lot but ends up with repeating phrases and unfulfilled film-making ambitions (trip to Sanya with a hidden camera). And human right activists deserve better.