A college student in China is told by his school’s party official to turn against his good friend and classmate, when he speaks in front of a class on how his pal has been “led astray” by a moral belief system that the communist regime has banned.
That is one of the gripping moments in the recently-released movie “Unsilenced,” a film based on real-life events of two Chinese couples at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, when their normal college life was turned upside down after they became targets of China’s nationwide persecution against Falun Gong.
The film’s director, Leon Lee, who won a Peabody Award for his 2014 documentary “Human Harvest,” said the classroom scene showed that China’s persecution of the ancient Chinese self-improvement and meditation practice goes behind just forcing individuals to renounce their beliefs, in a recent interview with EpochTV’s “American Thought Leaders” program.
“In China, every school, every medium or large workplace, sometimes even private enterprises, the military, news organizations, almost every place, even your community, your neighborhood, there will be a Communist Party representative who is responsible to carry out the party policies,” Lee said.
In other words, “the entire nation is mobilized in the crackdown against Falun Gong,” Lee added. “Your colleagues, your classmates, your friends, everybody is mobilized [to] turn against you.”
“So, in a sense, the crackdown completely destroyed the entire nation,” Lee said.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual practice with meditative exercises and moral principles based on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. According to official estimates, there were 70 million to 100 million adherents before the Chinese regime banned it in 1999—around the same number reported to be members of the ruling Communist Party.
The practice’s popularity angered former Chinese regime leader Jiang Zemin, who viewed it as a threat to both his rule and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) ideologies. In July 1999, Jiang launched a persecution to arrest and detain Falun Gong adherents.
Millions have been detained inside prisons, labor camps, and other facilities, with hundreds of thousands tortured while incarcerated, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center. As of this month, there are over 4,700 known deaths that can be documented resulting from the persecution, according to Minghui.org, a U.S.-based website that tracks the persecution—though experts say the true figure is likely much higher.
On an individual level, Lee said the scene also explains that it is impossible for individuals to “have a life” even if they choose to toe the CCP line and give up their faith.
“This scene, this experience shows that, no, you won’t have a life. Simply renouncing your faith is not enough; you have to turn in your friends, you have to betray the people you love, you have to completely sell your soul to the regime in order to survive,” Lee said.
He added: “And do you still call that surviving? Do you still call that living?”
The film explores the life of Wang (Ting Wu)—the main character of the film who saw his classmate turn against him—who was one of the brightest students at Tsinghua University before he was expelled from the school and became “enemy of the state,” according to Lee. The movie director said Wang eventually spent eight years in a Chinese prison for his beliefs before he escaped from China.
In the movie, China’s persecution of Falun Gong catches the attention of Daniel Davis, a Western newspaper reporter played by Sam Trammel, who decides to investigate the matter, despite warnings from his assistant Ming Xu, who is played by Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015 and an outspoken China human rights activist. How the two proceed in an oppressive environment makes up a big part of the film.
“The Chinese regime had various ways to censor, control, or influence foreign reporters in China,” Lee said. “[The] reporter is a composite character. I did interview many reporters who [were] stationed in China. And I was able to incorporate some of their experiences into this character.”
Lee said China censors foreign journalists by manipulating its visa program.
“Sometimes they were only given, for example, three months’ visa or six months of visa. And depending on what articles they write during this period of time, their visa may or may not be extended.
“That’s why for many of them to be able to report the truth, it’s a constant struggle,” Lee said.
For Lee, the film is much more than just a human rights story in China.
“If we look at people in China, as you see in the film, the length they’re willing to go to speak the truth, I think it’s inspiring, to me at least,” Lee said.
“Sometimes there’s a cost to speak the truth, but in no way it can compare to the cost and the risks people like Wang take in the film, practitioners in China take. So, if they can do what they do in China, facing torture, facing arrest, I think we can do better in the West.”
Director: Leon Lee
Starring: Sam Trammell, James Yi, Anastasia Lin
Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Release Date: Jan. 21, 2022 (U.S. Theatrical Release)