A new Canadian-made film tells the story of a daring operation by a group of Chinese citizens who brought uncensored news to China and its aftermath, weaving personal stories of courage and inspiring ones of sacrifice and faith. The film has been leading in an audience award poll since its screening in Toronto on May 3.
“Eternal Spring,” directed by Torontonian Jason Loftus, is an animated documentary that looks at the 2002 circumvention of a Chinese state television station. The story and animation were drawn from acclaimed Chinese artist Daxiong, who tried to piece together the events that occurred 20 years ago in his homeland, where he and his fellow practitioners of the spiritual practice Falun Gong became targets of a brutal persecution directed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the late 1990s.
On May 4, “Eternal Spring” shot to the top of a list of audience-selected favourites for the Hot Docs Audience Award, presented by the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, one of the largest documentary festivals in North America.
The documentary is based on the stories of 18 Falun Gong practitioners who tapped into a state cable television broadcast network on March 5, 2002, in Changchun city, in China’s northeastern Jilin Province. Programs of “Self-immolation or Hoax?” and “Falun Dafa Spreads Worldwide” were broadcast on eight channels simultaneously for about 45 minutes as a result.
Falun Gong, which consists of meditative exercises and teachings based on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, was first introduced in 1992 in China, where it soon gained widespread popularity due to its benefits to people’s physical and mental health. By 1999, the practice attracted 70 million to 100 million adherents, according to official Chinese estimates.
Then-CCP leader Jiang Zemin, however, perceived that popularity as a threat to the regime’s totalitarian rule and July 20, 1999, launched a hate campaign and violent suppression of adherents in an attempt to eradicate the practice.
On Jan. 23, 2001, CCP mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency broadcast a video clip of five people setting themselves on fire at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Xinhua immediately claimed the five to be Falun Gong practitioners who burned themselves in a religious suicide attempt, even though suicide is counter to the practice’s teachings. The so-called self-immolation was used by the CCP to show the world that Falun Gong was an “evil cult” that deserved to be wiped out.
Despite various loopholes in the video, which was later challenged by international researchers and media, Xinhua’s reporting of the staged incident struck a major propaganda victory for the CCP against Falun Gong. Many Chinese citizens began to proactively turn in their coworkers, neighbours, and even family members who practiced Falun Gong, believing the group was truly dangerous.
The 18 Falun Gong practitioners tapped into the state television station to broadcast information counter to Xinhua’s narrative. Programming that reported the facts about the persecution campaign against Falun Gong was broadcast simultaneously on eight channels to 300,000 cable subscribers in Changchun.
Within days of the tapping effort in Changchun—the Chinese namesake of the film—more than 5,000 Falun Gong practitioners in the city and nearby area were arrested in a massive sweep by the authorities. At least seven of them were beaten to death days later.
Threats from Beijing
Loftus said the Chinese regime has threatened his family members in China while disrupting his business during the process of making the documentary.
Loftus and artist Daxiong—who has drawn for Justice League and Star Wars comics—had worked together to develop a video game many years ago, and the game has been published by Chinese technology and entertainment giant Tencent.
“But in the midst of making this film, … the Chinese government contacted my business partners at Tencent and they forced them to cut ties with my company, and they killed our publishing deal, just as we were launching our video game,” Loftus told The Epoch Times at the film’s screening on May 3.
“At the same time, my wife’s family members who still live in China were contacted by the Public Security Bureau, and they were sort of threatened and told, ‘Hey, we know what you’re up to overseas.’ So when people are saying it’s difficult to talk about China, to talk about human rights stories in China, that’s true. Definitely, there is a consequence.”
However, Loftus said he is inspired by the people who sacrificed so much in order to speak up for the truth, and that it is important to get the word out about what’s happening in China.
“I’m inspired and I’m touched by the characters that we meet in this film, in this story. You see how much they sacrificed and what they went through in order to be able to speak up and to be able to speak the truth. And so I feel like we have to use the freedom that we have to be able to give them a voice, to be able to share that story with more people,” he said.
“We made this to be able to share it with people, for people to be able to talk about what is happening in China, to what the Falun Gong community has suffered, to what is continuing to go on in China, with a number of groups inside China that are being persecuted by the Communist Party, and we just wanted to be able to share that in a really unique and artistic and, hopefully, touching and compelling way.”