The Dwarf Empire

Alice Fassi: Instagram
Marco Gehlhar: website and Instagram

Imagine a realm lost in a fairy tale, ruled by a golden castle in a butterfly park, cute mushroom houses and magical trees. Picture tiny folks in green and red outfits having playful sword fights to the tune of Carmina Burana. Little ladies in colorful tutus dance, a Mongolian warrior rides a pig, and someone’s even spitting fire. The ruler of this tiny world is a 1-meter-tall emperor in a fancy gold outfit and a giant feathers crown.
This isn’t just any fairy tale—it’s a lilliputian one.

Photographer Marco Gehlhar and director Alice Fassi embarked on a journey to explore and capture the daily performances of these little people in a unique amusement park: The Dwarf Empire. Nestled near Kunming in southwest China, the distinctive aspect becomes apparent: all the staff comprises individuals of shorter stature, with the maximum height for admitted workers set at 130 cm.

Founded in September 2009 by Chen Mingjing, a prosperous real estate investor, the amusement park aims to offer employment opportunities to those facing challenges in finding work. Approximately 70-80 little people reside in dormitories provided by their employer, tailored for accessibility to shorter individuals. Every day, they put on shows for tourists, with unusually tall security guards around them, creating a surreal contrast.

Post-performance, they playfully feign residing in colored mushrooms where they unwind and engage in handcraft activities.

As one can easily imagine, the park has not been without its share of controversies. On one side, debates surrounding the park focused on the risk of ghettoization of these people and turning their lives into a human zoo-like experience. On the other hand, these individuals had found themselves excluded from the wider world, unable to find a place in mainstream society. Here, they discovered a sense of community, resembling a big family. It’s a place where they can finally feel secure and showcase their talents, almost like stars. Questions persist about whether isolating individuals with disabilities from the broader society is genuinely the most effective way to counter stigmatization.

Controversies aside, Marco and Alice opted to document everything in a neutral manner. Their approach avoids taking a moral stance, focusing solely on representing the experience and the undoubtedly immersive and unique aesthetics unlike anything ever experienced before.

PHROOM // Alice Fassi & Marco Gehlhar
PHROOM // Alice Fassi & Marco Gehlhar
PHROOM // Alice Fassi & Marco Gehlhar

Marco Gehlhar was born in Munich, Germany, and grew up between Florence, Italy, and Berlin, Germany. His parents, both photographers, instilled in him a deep appreciation for the visual arts from a young age. Throughout his career, Marco has curated photographic exhibitions and collaborated with notable figures in documentary and artistic photography,  like Kurt Markus and Nicolas Winding Refn.

In his personal work, Marco explores themes related to new religious movements and ufology, investigating the enigmatic aspects of human existence and our connection to the unknown.

Alice Fassi is an Italian director based in Milan. She has directed numerous films for a diverse range of clients. Her films have been selected and awarded at various international film festivals, including Ciclope, 1.4, BFI, A Shaded View on Fashion, and Berlin Commercial.

Her artistic imprint revolves around surreal atmospheres and thought-provoking narratives. She is drawn to the dreamlike and absurd, embracing the paradoxical. Her profound curiosity in these aspects of life manifests itself through a special interest in the everyday nonsensical, serving as her primary wellspring of inspiration.

Copyright © Alice Fassi & Marco Gehlhar, all rights reserved

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