PHILADELPHIA—A documentary portraying how two Falun Gong practitioners stood up against the Chinese regime at great personal cost won yet another top prize at a film festival on Wednesday.
Free China: The Courage to Believe, took away top honors at the inaugural International Free Speech Film Festival in Philadelphia. Earlier it won the top award in its category at the Awareness Film Festival in West Hollywood on May 6 and another top award at the 45th World-Fest Houston Film Festival on April 23.
The practitioners’ personal stories are told against the backdrop of the 13-year-long persecution faced by more than 100 million Chinese people. Audience members at Wednesday’s event said they had heard and read about Falun Gong but had no idea of the magnitude of the persecution and had never been brought so close to it.
“I hope this film changes our world,” said Margaret Chew Barringer, a poet and filmmaker. The film festival is the latest initiative from American Insight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting free speech founded by Barringer. “Free China” was screened to a full house in the Benjamin Franklin Hall.
“I was struck by the human scope of it,” Sharon Eisenhour said of the film. Eisenhour is a professor at Temple University’s School of Communication. “A lot of people in this country have no idea to what extent the persecution is,” she said.
The award ceremony was preceded by a panel of high-profile speakers including Karen Curry, former CNN bureau chief and veteran producer of broadcast news and CNN’s New York bureau chief. Also on the panel was Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University who has served as director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, C.K. Williams; Reggie Shuford, senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; Vernon Odom, host of the Channel 6 TV station’s weekly public affairs program; and Bob Craig, host of Big Band Jazz with Bob Craig, also spoke.
Lydia Hunn, professor at Drexel University’s College of Media Arts and Design, said she was moved to tears by the story of Jennifer Zeng, the Chinese woman profiled in the film. “I didn’t know the extent of this. I didn’t know there is so much repression,” she said.
Zeng was a former Chinese Communist Party member who belonged to China’s upper middle class and then became a prisoner of conscience in China and a human rights activist in exile. In telling her story, the film examines the journey to freedom taken by millions of Chinese citizens who have chosen to speak up against injustice in China.
Zeng, who was granted political asylum by Australia and now lives in the United States, is the author of the bestselling book, Witnessing History: One woman’s fight for freedom and Falun Gong.
“It was heart wrenching,” professor Hunn said. “She was so honest in her description of the pains of having to lie about giving up in her belief in order to get out and tell her story—a torture to her.”
Zeng, who was visibly touched while giving a speech at the award ceremony, said, “For me, free speech means two things: whether one has a kind enough heart to see the truth; and secondly, whether one has the wisdom and courage to search for the truth, or to simply accept it when it is presented.”
Zeng said the 13-yearlong sacrifice and suffering endured by millions of Falun Gong practitioners in China has become the most crucial test for people’s conscience and ability to take a stand between good and evil and right and wrong.
“At the end of the day, it is not politicians, or governments, but the choices of every single one of us that will shape and create our own future,” she said.
Alongside Zeng, U.S. citizen Charles Lee is profiled in the film. Lee is a former Harvard Medical School fellow who was imprisoned in a Chinese labor camp for three years for attempting to publicize the persecution of Falun Gong in China by tapping into the state-controlled television.
Lee suffered the same inhuman treatment as Zeng did: mental and physical torture, brainwashing, forced-feedings, forced labor, and the threat of becoming a victim of forced organ harvesting.
Both Lee and Zeng discussed their Chinese labor camp experiences of making toys and other consumer products sold in the United States by American companies. The film also examined the role of leading Western technology companies in the development of the Chinese regime’s internet censorship to suppress free speech.
Jennifer Lynn, a broadcast producer in Philadelphia, said she was “wowed by the power of the story.” Lynn, the Morning Edition host of NPR affiliate WHYY/91FM in Philadelphia said, “The story is of courage and truth. Really resounding. All I want to do now is to share it with more people.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have parks filled throughout this country of people doing Falun Gong, paying tribute to the film, to the story, to those who are being persecuted?” Lynn said.
In the speech given at the award ceremony, Lee, who was accompanied by his wife and 2-year-old daughter, thanked the American people for their role in trying to end the injustice in China. He said the persecution of Falun Gong has reached far beyond the 100 million Falun Gong practitioners directly affected.
“Internationally, it also affects countries that have trading, diplomatic, political, and cultural relations with China,” he said. “The persecution is also directly against the universal principles of truthfulness, compassion, forbearance. The test is the toughest one for people of conscience, because they know that Falun Gong practitioners are good people and the persecution is unlawful and inhumane. If they want to continue to do business with the communist regime, they think they have to turn a blind eye to the persecution.”
Lee continued, “I believe it is the responsibility of each of us to uphold the moral standards that are the foundations of any society. A China without the Communist Party will be a truly free China and a stable friend to all countries around the world.”
Free China was selected from a group of six finalists that explored topics of censorship, resistance, inequality, courage, change, and hope. A panel of 50 judges from all walks of life chose the winner.
The film will be distributed free of charge to high schools globally.
Free China was directed by Michael Perlman, award-winning director of Tibet-Beyond Fear, and produced by Kean Wong, a Chinese-Australian filmmaker, TV producer, and host for New Tang Dynasty Television.
“With the persecution of truth, compassion, and tolerance you eradicate morality and principles that are the basis of a civil society, a free society, a prosperous society,” Wong said at the awards evening.
“I think that is why the Falun Gong issue is so critical, because if truth, compassion, tolerance and other beautiful spiritual practices out there are allowed to spread, then the morality of the entire nation can revive itself. And then naturally the government will not have to worry about stability,” Wong continued. “If individuals and families are given the freedom to live a moral life so that the society they are a part of is one that embraces and cherishes moral values, that is what China needs.”
Perlman said he directed the film in the hope that it would foster real freedom inside China. “And to let the Chinese government know they have nothing to be afraid of by allowing freedom in China. Because this is the way that China will become even stronger economically and politically.”
“History is on the side of freedom around the world,” he continued. “And it’s something that all of us together, both in the United States, and around the world, individually and collectively, can work and make it happen.”
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