Filmmaker Jason Loftus's animated documentary "Eternal Spring" took two top awards following its North American premiere screening at the Hot Docs 2022 festival earlier this month.
Having already won double prizes at its world premiere at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in March, the film's success and impact on audiences is a testament to Loftus's unwavering resolve to continue production despite facing threats and intimidation from Chinese authorities while making the film.
With the film's U.S. premiere coming up at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival on May 23 and May 24—also streaming online May 20–27—as well as screenings at five other festivals across the United States over the next four weeks (see venues and dates below), we reached out to Loftus for a Q&A to find out more about his motivation behind the film, the interference he encountered while producing it, and audience responses so far during the film's first few festival screenings around the globe.
The Film, the Filmmaker, and CCP Interference
Animated documentary "Eternal Spring"—which won both the Hot Docs Audience Award and the Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Feature on May 8—along with Loftus's 2020 investigative documentary, "Ask No Questions," would turn out to be a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Both films explore the subject of religious persecution in China, namely, of Falun Gong, a meditation practice rooted in traditional Chinese belief systems; its core values: truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
In our Q&A below, Loftus reveals he was working on the production of both films simultaneously when Chinese authorities made it clear to him that they knew what he was up to.
A Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and four-time Canadian Screen Award nominee, Loftus owns Lofty Sky Entertainment and its subsidiary, Lofty Sky Pictures, producing feature films, television series, games, and apps. "Eternal Spring" is his second feature documentary as producer/director.
Loftus's directorial debut documentary, "Ask No Questions," was an investigative piece on a Chinese government conspiracy involving a staged fiery public suicide in 2001 that aimed to pin the blame on Falun Gong and justify persecution of the faith. The film demonstrates the deadly power of media under authoritarian control, a theme many in the West can now relate to within the current climate of world affairs.
Follow-up documentary "Eternal Spring" further explores the issue of authoritarian government and media control, along with what many would consider unbelievably courageous actions taken in an attempt to break free from it. The animated film tells the true story of a group of Falun Gong adherents who in 2002 succeeded at hijacking a Chinese state television broadcast to counter the CCP's narrative about their faith; a stirring and inspiring tale of defiance and determination in defending religious freedom in the face of violent, deadly repression.
In the midst of the police raids that followed this unprecedented, daring television signal takeover, comic book illustrator Daxiong ("Justice League," "Star Wars"), himself a Falun Gong adherent, fled his hometown, the city of Changchun (in Chinese, 長春 eternal spring). He was eventually arrested in 2008 because his art offended the CCP, and he subsequently exiled to New York City.
The film follows Daxiong's personal journey—his memories of the television airways hijacking and the aftermath—with his art forming the basis and inspiration for the film's 3D animation.
Q&A With Filmmaker Jason Loftus
Epoch Inspired: Off the back of your investigative documentary “Ask No Questions,” why did you feel compelled to further explore the issue of the persecution of Falun Gong in this follow-up film, "Eternal Spring"?
Mr. Jason Loftus: I was fortunate to encounter a couple of remarkable stories. As a filmmaker, you want to add something to the conversation so you hope to find stories that display something unique or remarkable about the human spirit or reveal something about the state of things in the world. Unfortunately, Falun Gong is poorly understood, as is the plight of its adherents in China, but as a consequence, there are also some amazing stories to tell, and they touch on universal themes that affect and relate to all of us. I hope that through these two films, Falun Gong, and what the group has endured in China, can be better understood.
Epoch Inspired: What most touched you or left an impression on you while working on this film?
Mr. Loftus: This story deals with a great deal of loss, but I was struck by the spirit of hope that many of the film’s subjects seemed to hold despite these circumstances.
Epoch Inspired: How do the themes in "Eternal Spring" relate to us all?
Mr. Loftus: I think we all respect it when someone speaks truth to power, especially when the stakes could not be higher. The desire for freedom and the pursuit of the truth are universal. "Eternal Spring" shows an extreme case of what can happen when freedom of speech, assembly, and belief are absent and how destructive this can be. It’s also an inspiring story of how far some would go to speak out in the face of injustice.
It’s interesting that these events are now 20 years old, but I continually have audience members tell me they feel the film is extremely timely and that it’s what’s needed right now. What we see in the world today is that the atrocities and injustices taking place would not in many cases be possible without the construction and maintenance of a false narrative. A narrative that paints a group of people as harmful, bad, or somehow deserving of whatever action is being meted out against them.
We might think it sounds extreme for someone to risk their freedom and even their life to counter the state media narrative, but when you recognize the role that disinformation can play in fueling hate and atrocity, you recognize that there’s also remarkable sacrifice and nobility in that act.
Epoch Inspired: You received threats and interference from the Chinese regime while working on this film. Can you tell us about that? How did you react, and did you predict it might happen?
Mr. Loftus: I was producing a video game that was being published by Tencent, a major media company in China, when I began working on this film (and another related documentary, "Ask No Questions"). The game had already been approved by censors at two ministries of the Chinese government, as is required.
We had interviewed people for both films and word about our work was spreading. Then, just in the midst of the launch of the game, our title mysteriously disappeared from Tencent’s storefront. After several days, it seemed clear it wasn’t a technical issue and when we got our rep on the call, I recorded it. I was told directly that the Chinese government had contacted Tencent and told them they had to cut ties with my company. It was not an issue with the game itself, I was told. My rep asked if my team was involved in something “not aligned with the government direction.” Tencent obliged with the government pressure. I included the recording in my first film, which I was releasing in 2020.
I was obviously aware of the sensitivity of human rights in China, and the subject of Falun Gong in particular. We were interviewing journalists for "Ask No Questions" who were concerned about speaking on the record specifically because of concerns over reprisals from the regime. Still, it hits home when it happens to you. The regime indeed uses economic penalties to stifle dissenting voices.
Epoch Inspired: Many would have given in to such an ultimatum. Why didn’t you?
Mr. Loftus: I would not describe it as an ultimatum. In fact, I think pressure and intimidation from the Chinese government often occur behind the scenes, not explicitly. They don’t say, “if you do X, we will respond with Y.” That would actually be less effective in engendering self-censorship. For self-censorship to work, they need you to wonder what they know, to worry about what they might do. Then almost subconsciously you begin to filter your actions and words. They expand their power substantially if they can have you pre-emptively police yourself and if the rules of the game are unclear.
I saw from my last film, "Ask No Questions," that many journalists—some would say understandably—made this calculation. They knew if they approached sensitive subjects, like some of the most egregious aspects of the persecution of Falun Gong, there would be serious consequences for their access to China, their careers, perhaps even family. So many avoided these subjects. This is not to say that there was not some excellent, courageous reporting on Falun Gong from journalists in China, especially in the early days of the persecution. There was. But the extent of the sensitivity around Falun Gong, combined with a successful effort to muddy the waters on Falun Gong through extensive propaganda, led many to look away. Most journalists did not believe much of the Chinese regime’s accusations about Falun Gong, but it still takes a toll. People would think that if even part of what the Chinese government said is true, sticking one's neck out for this group may not be worth what was becoming a very heavy cost.
It dawned on me that even though the financial consequences are real, if I follow the same calculation and others do as well, then many stories simply aren’t going to see the light of day. I was also inspired by the individuals I was meeting coming out of China. They had in many cases faced imprisonment, torture, and loss of their livelihoods or homes. Yet they still persisted in wanting to tell their stories. I figured if they can go through this much to speak up, I should use the freedom and comfort I have to help tell their stories.
Epoch Inspired: Chinese authorities also contacted the family in China of your wife and filmmaking partner, Masha Loftus. Why would the Chinese Communist Party go so far as to threaten your wife’s family in China?
Mr. Loftus: Yes, around the time that the Chinese government pressured Tencent to cut ties with my company, the public security bureau in China began calling my wife’s family in the northeast of the country and warning them that the authorities “knew what we were up to overseas.” Apparently, it was some kind of threat or warning. We suspected that they were going through my wife’s WeChat to find connections in China, and so she ended up deleting the app.
As to why they would do this, I suspect they pull various levers to see how people respond. If they see that pressuring family or business is effective, then they know they can do more of that to get you to behave how they want.
Instead, I wrote an op-ed about this in the Wall Street Journal. I also included recordings of what they had done to my business and family as clips in my last film. They haven’t tried the same tactics this time around.
Epoch Inspired: What kind of reactions have you received for "Eternal Spring" so far?
Mr. Loftus: We had the world premiere at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, and our North American premiere at Hot Docs. Both of these are outstanding documentary festivals, and in both cases, we came away with double prizes including the top audience award at both festivals. That gives you an idea of how people are responding to this film, and as a filmmaker, it's extremely heartening. You make a film because something stirs you, and you hope to do justice to the subject you’ve encountered so that others can be affected by it in the same way. I’ve had numerous people tell me that they were emotional through the entire screening, or that they woke up the next morning with the film still in their minds. I have to say, I’m very touched to hear these kinds of reactions.
Epoch Inspired: For those who might consider attending the U.S. premiere of the film at the New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival on May 23–24, what kind of experience can they expect?
Mr. Loftus: This is the first time that Human Rights Watch Film Festival has been able to hold an in-person festival in two years, and we’re thrilled to be among the 10 films being played at two outstanding venues—Lincoln Center and IFC Center.
We made this film for the big screen. It’s produced in Cinema 4K in 2.39 Scope (ultra-wide) format to really allow people to gain an appreciation of the artistry of the illustrator Daxiong as he retraces these astonishing memories and accounts.
Both myself and Daxiong will be in attendance for both shows for Q&As after the film.