Filmmaker Jason Loftus: Animated Documentary Recalls CCP Mass Arrests and Persecution After State TV Hijacking
“Most people do know that they cannot trust the state narrative. But the problem is: what can you trust? And what can you not trust? How far does the propaganda go?”
At a time of ubiquitous lies, when telling the truth can cost you your life, is it worth it?
I sit down with Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Jason Loftus, director of the new animated documentary “Eternal Spring,” the story of a group that managed the unimaginable—to hijack China’s state TV airwaves.
“It was unprecedented in Chinese history for any group to have any intervention in the monopoly of control of media and television inside China,” Loftus says.
Jan Jekielek: Jason Loftus, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Jason Loftus: Pleasure to be here, Jan.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Jason, congratulations on an incredible, incredible film. Eternal Spring just won the Audience Award at Hot Docs, one of the premier documentary film festivals in the world. You tackle a little bit of Chinese history that a lot of people have never heard of. It’s an event that’s unprecedented in Chinese history, where a group hacks into the state TV network and broadcasts a message breaking through state propaganda. Please tell me about this.
Mr. Loftus: Yes. It’s a remarkable story that we were fortunate to come across. Eternal Spring is an animated documentary that explores the heist of state TV airwaves by a group of Falun Gong adherents in Northeast China, in a city called Changchun. They had been persecuted for their beliefs, and were also facing a barrage of state disinformation about their practice. They had made all kinds of efforts to get the word out, but just felt that they had no real recourse except to take over the state airwaves themselves. They were climbing poles with what were, essentially, home DVD players and trying to tap into the state TV signal. It’s a remarkable story that was, as you said, unprecedented in Chinese history, and surprisingly as well, very little known outside of China. In part, this is because of the heavy aftermath of this incident, where individuals who were involved were arrested en masse. It has been very, very difficult to find anyone who was involved, in order to understand what really happened.
We were just very fortunate to come across someone. I was making a kung fu video game a few years ago, and it featured a lot of hand-drawn comic book art. We learned about this artist living in New York who was originally from China. His name is Daxiong, and he had drawn for Star Wars comics and Justice League, and he had also worked with Louis Cha, who is a major kung fu novelist in Chinese. He had these amazing illustration skills, but also the cultural background. So, we brought him up to Toronto when we were working on this kung fu video game. In the midst of collaborating with him, we learned the remarkable story of why he had to leave China and how it was connected to this dramatic heist of the state TV airwaves. We just felt that his evocative illustration abilities and this really amazing story presented a unique opportunity to explore a human rights story through animation, and through the lens of an artist who was personally connected to the events.
It was unprecedented in Chinese history for any group to intervene in the state controlled media and television inside China. This sent a shockwave through the Chinese authorities, for sure. There’s a biography of the Chinese communist ruler at the time, Jiang Zemin, which mentions that he personally called Changchun that night, essentially demanding consequences for those who were involved.
Mr. Jekielek: Falun Gong practitioners were very, very creative in doing this. It’s called clarifying the truth to the populace, so to speak. Actually, you showcase a lot of their different methods. One of the masterminds puts up these helium balloons with banners that say, “Falun Dafa is good.” Then, when people pop the balloon, there are all these flyers that come flying out and get scattered everywhere. It seemed like a brilliant idea. Tell me about these different methods, and why the need for all this creativity.
Mr. Loftus: Yes, it’s born out of necessity. The Chinese authorities began to crack down on Falun Gong, and here’s some background for viewers who might not be familiar with it. Falun Gong was introduced in China in 1992. It has its roots in traditional Chinese practices in the Buddhist school. It is based on the tenets of Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance, and it includes slow moving yoga-like exercises. It was part of the qigong wave that had swept through China at the time. But Falun Gong, amidst all the different qigong practices, became extremely popular. Some estimates say that there were tens of millions, perhaps a hundred million people who were practicing.
At that point, it unnerved some leaders in the Communist Party, because it was something that was operating outside of official Communist Party control. And also, because Falun Gong adhered to traditional spiritual tenets that were very prevalent in traditional Chinese culture, but had been largely uprooted by the Communist Party. So, there was some tension around that. After the ban on Falun Gong, there was this pervasive effort throughout all Chinese media to denounce the group. All of a sudden, Falun Gong went from being practiced freely, to being something that was evil and dangerous and needed to be uprooted to maintain social order.
Of those who had practiced Falun Gong and had gained physical and mental and spiritual benefits from it, there were many who still wished to continue with their practice and not to go along with the Chinese government narrative. But because all the channels of communication were essentially controlled by the Chinese government, they were forced into clandestine operations to distribute flyers at night. They would spray paint messages saying, “The media is lying to you. Falun Gong is good.” All of this was done to counter the state narrative. It was to say, “No, we’re not what the Chinese government describes us as.” And so, you would see spray painted messages in public spaces. At the time, they had VCDs, basically video CD-ROMs, not exactly high-tech stuff, but they would hand them out person by person.
One of the challenges they ran into is keeping up with the authorities. When the authorities have a monopoly on all channels of communication, they have already told everybody that you are evil and dangerous. If you’re doing anything to propagate Falun Gong’s message, you are then against China and against the authorities, and people may not even give you the time to state your case. They may not even take your CD. They might be more likely to flag over a cop to have you arrested.
So, it was a cat and mouse game that was very difficult for these individuals to succeed at. That’s what led them to say, “We need to think bigger. Yes, we have been creative, but we’re constantly in and out of prison and labor camps as a result of what we’re doing. The cost is really high.” They felt very limited because of the overwhelming reach of the authorities. That’s what led to this grand idea to take over the state airwaves.
Liang is the mastermind of this kind of heist story element. One of the attractions here is that, yes, it’s a human rights story, and these are real people. It has a lot of consequences, but there is this crazy Ocean’s 11 “Let’s pull off a heist,” element to the story. Clearly, these are underdogs who were trying to go up against total state control. Liang, prior to this TV hijacking idea, had been involved in a lot of efforts. Those included this effort to raise helium balloons that would carry banners, but at times they also carried flyers inside the balloons. Once they were destroyed, flyers would be scattered throughout the city. That really captured the spirit of his character. I really sensed him as someone who was very cognizant of the danger he was facing, but always just one step ahead of the authorities. He was very creative, and very out of the box. That’s how the witnesses we spoke with described him.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m struck by some of the things that Daxiong mentions. For example, when he first heard about this idea, he was actually against it. Then there is another character that says, “I had moral qualms about doing it, because it was against the law and I don’t like doing that.” Please tell me about that dimension. Everybody didn’t just suddenly say, “Yes, we’re going to take over the airwaves.” There was some serious deliberation that occurred.
Mr. Loftus: Sure. That is what’s interesting about it. You are in the midst of a situation where people are trying to determine, “Well, what’s the right course of action? We have no voice. The authorities aren’t following the law, so should we really follow the law?” You can see this kind of thinking. You can also see that there is understandably a lot of fear and concern. Even in Daxiong’s case, he sympathized with the effort. He definitely wanted to get the message out and to counter the state narrative. But the hammer came down so heavily in the aftermath. By the estimates of human rights groups, thousands of people were arrested as a consequence of this. So, people to ask the question, “Was it worth it, or did we make things worse?”
That’s a valid question. As a filmmaker, I wanted to have that out there, so that people could discover, “What are they thinking? How did they think? Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why are they willing to risk this? What does Falun Gong mean to them?” It was a unique opportunity for me to bring an audience through this process of every stage; before the crackdown, in the midst of the crackdown, in the midst of this whole heist effort, and in the aftermath. I wanted to put the viewer into someone else’s shoes and see what made them tick and why they were doing this.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk briefly about the Mr. White character. There’s only one of this whole crew that got out of China. Most of them were imprisoned or tortured to death. How did he get out? Did he feel comfortable talking about this?
Mr. Loftus: Yes. Those are good questions. He had already spent quite a few years in prison as a result of this. Some of the specifics of what went on there and how he dealt with the authorities while in prison is something that we cover in the film. But, after spending time in prison, he did benefit from a couple of things. One is that he’s an ethnic Korean who was living in the Northeast. There is a large Korean community in Changchun in Northeast China where this story took place. His mother was living in Korea, and there are means for people who are of Korean ethnicity to be able to come to Korea and resettle there. So that helped him.
His mom, while he was in prison and being persecuted, went to the media in Korea and helped shine a light on his case. When that happens, it does help to alleviate some of the treatment that people are experiencing in these labor camps. After he was released, he was able to go to visit his mother. Then finally, after some time, he was able to permanently resettle in Korea.
Mr. Jekielek: In the film, you say that Auntie Jo, the kind of mother of the group who took care of everybody, and made sure they were well fed, is actually due for release right now, or maybe has been released. What is the situation with that?
Mr. Loftus: Her sentence was a 20-year sentence in 2002, so she is due to be released this year, but we have been unsuccessful in finding any information about her. This is difficult in China. Sentences can be extended without real cause or much publicity around it. At the same time, people who are released, if they’re still of concern of the authorities, may be under some type of house arrest or have limited ability to communicate. Or they may just have gone through so much that they’re shattered and are living a life of isolation. At this point, we are not able to determine where she’s at, but that is something that we are going to be looking at this year. Hopefully, the film can shine a light on her situation and be of some help in that regard.
Mr. Jekielek: So, what is the reality of this persecution in China? It’s very difficult for a lot of people to fathom why this would happen at this scale, and that what you just described could even be a reality.
Mr. Loftus: Yes, it continues unfortunately. It’s a consequence of another tragedy always going on in the world, and so our attention continues to shift and we focus on one thing and then another thing, as we then move on to something else. Recently, people have heard a lot more about the internment of the Uyghurs in Northwest China, estimates of millions of people who have been detained, forced to abandon their beliefs, and mistreated in other ways. More prominently, we have witnessed the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong, which has really accelerated the deterioration of the situation in Hong Kong. But, we haven’t heard much about Falun Gong for some time. As a result of that, some people might think. “Okay, maybe Falun Gong is a less prominent issue, or it’s not happening anymore.”
But the reality is, we’re meeting these people. Like I mentioned, there are people who are still in prison, or we still have been unable to find information about them today for events that took place 20 years ago. There are still people who are being detained and arrested and persecuted today. There was a big push in the lead-up to the Olympics, where more people were detained. The authorities were concerned that they might protest or make a scene or draw attention to the ongoing persecution, and so they were preemptively detained out of that fear. And so this is continuing to happen today. There are still many, many people in labor camps and detention centers in China who are being persecuted for their belief in Falun Gong.
Some of the tactics that we’ve seen used on Falun Gong over a couple of decades are things that we now see applied to other groups, in terms of mass internment and being coerced into abandoning their beliefs. We see the same tactics being used on the Uyghur community. The credible reports of organ harvesting on Falun Gong practitioners, are similar to current reports of organ harvesting on the Uyghurs and other minority groups in China. So, we see echoes of these tactics used against other groups, but the persecution of Falun Gong itself still continues today.
Mr. Jekielek: The Vice Commissioner of USCIRF (U.S. Commission on International and Religious Freedom) was on the show not too long ago, and he was talking about this. There’s a blind eye turned to the organ harvesting, when actually there are credible allegations of it against the Falun Gong practitioners. Then later, it appears to have been implemented against the Uyghur population. It reminds me that when you turn a blind eye, the next problem is just around the corner.
Mr. Loftus: One of the representatives from Human Rights Watch who was moderating the Q&A last night tweeted that many Westerners were concerned all of a sudden about China now, because Shanghai was in a very severe lockdown. They said, “Oh no, Shanghai, this beautiful city we used to enjoy.” The sentiment that I understood she was expressing is, “If you’ve been paying attention, the lack of freedom that you’re now witnessing in Shanghai has been prevalent throughout China, just in the places that you don’t go to when you’re there to do business. It’s not a new thing.” We’ve ignored it for some time, and now all of a sudden, it’s affecting our personal interests, but it was there all along.
Mr. Jekielek: How is this lockdown situation in these big cities in China informed by what we saw here? I believe you are talking about this now?
Mr. Loftus: Last night in the Q&A, there was an interesting point made by Daxiong, the artist character in our film. He sees the excess of the whole lockdown as the continual effort by the Chinese Communist Party to really break the spirit of the Chinese people. You could see this is a theme throughout all of the mistreatment. It’s essentially a bully tactic of repressing people until they no longer dare to stand up anymore. The Chinese people have been through so much. That is what makes this story about the TV hijacking so remarkable. The consequences were so severe, and yet, these people still felt the need to speak up. That is what made me curious. Why would someone be willing to risk their freedom, their well-being, and potentially even their lives, just to counter a state narrative? What fuels that courage?
Mr. Jekielek: Something about the way the film was made is very magical. At the beginning, Daxiong says this is a shared memory that he is creating with his pen. He’s talking with the people, and as they are telling their story, he is drawing. They are seeing what he is drawing and they are moved by it. There is an incredible scene that you animate of his childhood in Changchun. I get chills up my spine just thinking about it, because he’s such a brilliant artist.
Speaker 17: [foreign language 00:18:12]
Mr. Jekielek: He’s showing it to Mr. White, and Mr. White is now remembering his past. All these memories come flooding back. So the film is based on a shared memory, but the film is also about creating that memory. The creation of that shared memory is depicted as it happens right in the film. It’s just an amazing idea. Where did that come from?
Mr. Loftus: A little bit meta, right? One thing that really struck me is there have been other documentaries that have used animation very well. I’m not sure if people consider Waltz With Bashir to be documentary or biography. There are debates about some of these forms, but there have been a number of such films. I enjoyed Tower a few years ago, when I caught that at Hot Docs in Toronto. So, animation is not new in the documentary space.
But, there was something really unique about this. This animation wasn’t just purely a decision at the hands of the filmmaker who says, “I think this is a great, stylistic way to depict some reenactments.” It was intimately part of the storytelling, because we’re pulling the curtain back and letting you see the creator creating. You can also see how his experiences are colored with his nostalgia, with his trauma, and with his sense of loss.
In that way, it does two things. One is that it continually reminds us throughout the film, because a third of the film is live-action, that these are real people and that this is a real story. In a documentary sense, I felt that grounding it in reality and showing the characters’ faces as they experienced all this was really important.
The other thing is that art is a character in the film as well. We can see the artistic process and how art can be used to help generate understanding, and hopefully healing and catharsis as well. Even though art is subjective by nature, and animation is subjective by nature, we can look at the process more objectively in the film, because we can see what the artist is drawing, and why he’s drawing it. Then, we can understand the lens that we are looking through. So, from a filmmaking perspective, those aspects really excited me. This film was a unique opportunity to go places that documentary hasn’t gone before.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s absolutely unique from anything that I’ve seen before. Let’s go back to the other question. Why will people risk all? And they really did.
Mr. Loftus: Yes. The name of the city struck a chord with me. When you’re making a film, you interview a lot of people. You do a lot of research. Obviously, this involved the artistic aspect as well. So, you’re creating concepts. You’re kind of experimenting with things. There’s so many ideas there. Then, certain things stick with you. They show themselves as being elements of the film. One of the interesting things that hit me was the name of the city. If you translate Changchun into English literally, it translates as “eternal spring.” I’m kind of giving something away here, but that’s where we drew the inspiration for the title of the film.
This is what hit me. As I was interviewing the witnesses, the name of the city resonated with the character of the people involved. Despite all they went through, all of the loss, all of the suffering, and everything they risked, they still had a sense of hope. It wasn’t like they tried, but didn’t end up overthrowing the government or even surviving in some cases, so it was all for naught. It didn’t feel like that. There was still this really present sense of hope. That to me led to a big question, “Where does that hope come from, and why do they still sense that hope?”
Then, digging into it more, you see that false narrative is so important in the campaign against Falun Gong. This is true with atrocities everywhere. We just don’t have one country coming in and invading another country if there aren’t a lot of people thinking this is the right thing to do. They buy into a certain narrative. You don’t see widespread human rights abuses against a certain ethnic minority, unless people have bought into a narrative that these people are the “other,” are less than, or are somehow worthy of the mistreatment they are enduring. And so, narrative is so important in justifying abuses and atrocities.
Even though, individually, these people may have suffered massive consequences, at the same time, the people who witnessed this broadcast, estimated to be in the hundreds-of-thousands, can never again watch the state-run propaganda in the same way. And they may be less likely to participate or go along with the persecution campaign, even if they don’t necessarily have the courage to speak out overtly against it. They just may not participate in the same way. And so that can slowly have a massive impact in the overall human rights situation with Falun Gong and with others.
The plum blossom flower is a symbol used in Chinese poetry. It’s called meihua. This flower blooms in the winter, when it’s still cold and the conditions are harsh. So, when you see it in Chinese poetry, it is often used to depict strength and perseverance in the face of suffering, or show some element of hope and a better future. When I see what these individuals went through, even though the conditions are still harsh, when even in the aftermath of this TV hijacking the persecution continues and people continue to be killed and imprisoned and tortured, there is this small sign, this small little flower that blooms, that gives some hope to people for a better future, where Falun Gong can be regarded, not with hate and from the perspective of misinformation, but with better understanding and tolerance.
That message was important, and we depicted that. You can see it with the motifs that are in the film, but it is so interesting that it connects with the name of the city. There are other layers to the whole spring aspect as well, when you think of a Prague spring, an Arab spring, or a spring movement for freedom. Eternal spring connotes perseverance in countering this persecution, regardless of the consequences.
Mr. Jekielek: People that live in free societies may wonder, “Don’t people know that it’s all propaganda?” For example, people are all getting together to watch the evening news. In fact, the hijackers wanted to specifically broadcast at that time, because they knew there would be a lot of people watching. Why are people sitting down with their families every night watching what they should know is state propaganda?
Mr. Loftus: Having the benefit of distance, that’s something that we can think about. When we look at another society that is a closed society, where they have no access to information beyond what the authorities approve, we have this distance to observe, and you can easily decipher that certain things just don’t make sense. But when you’re in it, it’s very, very difficult. Most people do know that they cannot trust the state narrative, but the problem is, what can you trust, and what can you not trust? How far does the propaganda go? Very few people are able to be exposed to real truth, when they have a state media that manufactures information and controls the narrative.
The last film that I made was sort of in the middle of making this Eternal Spring film. With of all the animation, and the small size of our team, Eternal Spring took five-plus years to finish. In the midst of that, I made another related film called Ask No Questions.
Voiceover: We hear it all the time, fake news. But I met a man who would challenge my notion of how far a fabrication could go. [foreign language 00:28:00].
Voiceover: I felt compelled to revisit the self-immolation and to investigate Chen’s claim that it had been staged.
Speaker 5: It’s unlikely that their true identities will ever be confirmed.
Speaker 6: I got my camera out. I could clearly see three people on fire.
Speaker 7: [foreign language 00:29:12]
Speaker 7: You are a piece of meat. The knife is in their hand. They can kill you any time.
Speaker 9: I thought the Chinese version of the events didn’t add up at all.
Speaker 10: Several questions arise in my mind as to whether in fact this was staged for political reasons.
Speaker 12: You cannot even imagine people being tortured to death.
Speaker 13: Once you accept that your government has been involved in a conspiracy involving the murder of innocent people, you then have to come face to face with your own helplessness.
Mr. Loftus: We looked at state media misinformation. This was the personal story of Chen Ruichang, who had worked in the chief editorial office of Guangdong TV, one of the four major state-run television networks in China. This man was imprisoned, tortured, and forced to watch state propaganda, essentially, for eight days straight until the speakers in the television broke. It was a Clockwork Orange-type of brainwashing, simply because he refused to accept the state narrative on an event referred to as the self-immolation event, which was a key event in the state misinformation campaign against Falun Gong. It was claimed that Falun Gong was responsible for the people who set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. And this was a key event that turned the public against Falun Gong.
When we spent time with him, we learned the extent of how far misinformation can go, and we dove into this story. We spoke with the CNN reporter who was on the Square. We spoke with other individuals and witnesses, and the state narrative comes apart pretty quickly. But the truth was very difficult to get at. It is very, very difficult to determine what is true and what is not true.
This is part of how propaganda works. Propaganda doesn’t need to be irrefutable. It just needs to muddy the waters enough so you can’t determine exactly what’s going on. You can hopefully defame a targeted group, so that maybe now they are not worth your sympathies, and maybe it’s not worth sticking your neck out for them. If the state media can achieve this, that’s good enough. They don’t mind if you don’t trust the state media, as long as you don’t know what’s really going on.
I’ll give you as an example, my wife and filmmaking partner, Masha Loftus. She comes from Changchun, the hometown of the artist Daxiong where this story took place. Masha is the daughter of a mid-level government official in China, and had no connection with the Falun Gong community. She didn’t know that any of this had happened, so it shocked her. But also, when she came out of China, she didn’t know about Tank Man. They were taught to memorize the names of these heroic soldiers who had defended the country against some insurrection, essentially, some effort to overthrow the state. This is what they were taught. They had no idea what really took place in Tiananmen Square. And about many other things, they just simply had no clue.
When she came overseas, my wife Masha was able to compare the real uncensored information here to what she had learned in China, and then make her own decisions. But when people in China don’t have that ability, even with the very intelligent, highly-educated people, it is very, very hard to judge them, saying, “How come you don’t know?” They may not trust everything. But, are you going to distrust all of it? Ultimately, you have to have some basis on which to plant your feet to understand the world.
Mr. Jekielek: As you talk about this, I’m thinking about this information storm that Elon Musk created recently, when he tweeted about knowing the falsity of the so-called Russia-Trump collusion. Elon Musk, has all of the best private intelligence because he’s interested in so many things, had only heard about this last month. Even in a country like the U.S., which has freedom of information, these types of questions are meaningful.
Mr. Loftus: Yes. There’s that quote attributed to Voltaire, although it’s probably more of an expression of his sentiments, than something he actually said. The idea is, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That is important. It’s not just a message about, “Hey, I should be tolerant of other opinions.” It’s much, much bigger than that. It’s fundamental to a functioning society.
I’m not familiar with the events that you’re describing, but I may look into those and feel the same way. I may look into them and have different opinions as well. The point is having the ability to have access to different viewpoints. That’s the only way things move forward.
There is this conversation around cracking down on misinformation or disinformation. I have now worked on two films where disinformation has been used to fuel atrocious human rights abuses. We’re talking about deaths and imprisonment and torture built on the back of disinformation. For me, disinformation isn’t the part that I’m most concerned about. It’s actually the absence of the ability to challenge the prevailing narrative. Because, if they were able to have a conversation and say, “No, this is not who we are,” and there’s an ability to air that out and people can consider different viewpoints, then those dangerous ideas won’t take hold. I do understand that disinformation has consequences, but I’m not worried about the dark alleys of the internet, where people are absorbing conspiracy theories, as much as I am, worried about anything that resembles what we see in authoritarian countries, where they have these levers of control about what is allowed as information and what is not allowed.
Once they’re in place, the real bad actors don’t search for the dark corners of the internet to influence a small number of people. They go for the levers of power, where they can control what can be said and what can’t be said. So,to me, that is a bigger concern. In the spirit of Voltaire, it’s important that we are able to hear contrary opinions and to really be able to talk them through and to trust people. It comes from education. In general, you have to trust people to debate these things openly, to see where the truth lies, and to make their own decisions.
Mr. Jekielek: As you’re talking, I can’t help think about one insidious use of disinformation. I’m thinking of the character, Mr. White. Basically he is told, “Go and convince this other practitioner that he was wrong, that he needs to recant, and that he needs to reform himself.” Under duress, Mr. White signed a statement saying he wouldn’t practice anymore. So now, he’s expected to enforce that disinformation on another practitioner. For a lot of people, this might seem like a bizarre thing. What is this all about?
Mr. Loftus: Fundamentally, the authorities know that they can’t change people’s minds and beliefs through coercion. But what they can achieve is people’s willingness to go along with the communist party. If the threats are severe enough, and the pain and suffering is extreme enough, then people start to abandon their own sense of what is right. In so doing, they will comply with the narrative of the authorities. Obviously, when you’re forcing someone to abandon their beliefs and then getting them to convince other people to do the same thing, it’s not through an open debate of ideas. It is through threats and intimidation.
There is one thing really remarkable about that character in this film, and you’re referring to Liang Zhenxing, who is the mastermind of the TV hijacking. There were efforts, not just by the authorities, but by fellow practitioners of Falun Gong who were persecuted to the extent that they couldn’t sustain their abuses and then became accomplices with the authorities in trying to convert him.
When you think that someone has gone through all of this, and yet they still persist, you may ask, “Why would someone go through all of this?” It is fundamental to any human society to be able to speak the truth, and in the face of injustice still have people willing to speak the truth. It is so important.
I mentioned that I was making two films at the same time. As I was making this film, there was a quote from The Gulag Archipelago that was on my mind. I’m probably not going to get it exactly right, but the idea is, “This simple act of a courageous individual is to not participate in the lie, and one word of truth outweighs the world.” It’s kind of a double-barreled quote. Looking at the first film, Ask No Questions, it was really about Chen Ruichang’s unwillingness to comply with the authorities, to not go along with a lie that he knew to be a lie. There is something really remarkable in that.
But going one step further, “and one word of truth outweighs the world”, really hits home when you see the impact that these individuals had with just less than an hour of interrupting the state television broadcast. It had a real impact, not only on the people who witnessed that immediate broadcast, but it was an inspiration for so many other people after them. Without spoiling it too much, you can see that in the Mr. White character, in his interactions with Liang, in his steadfastness, in what that meant for him, and how that inspired him going forward.
It creates this endless wave. Let’s say you are potentially facing very severe consequences, and you just look at it from an individual perspective. You make a calculation and say, “If I speak out and say what I know is right and these are the consequences, where am I going to end up?” If you look at that calculation from an individual perspective, it’s very understandable that a lot of people will say it’s not worth the cost. But if you’re able to look beyond yourself and see the impact that you can have by speaking up, and how that can inspire other people to do the same, and what that ultimately means projected forward for society, then you see how important it is.
Mr. Jekielek: Your wife is Chinese, and presumably has family in China. You have family in China, are you concerned?
Mr. Loftus: Yes. I mentioned at the outset that I came across Daxiong while we were making a kung fu video game called Shuyan Saga. It was to be published by Tencent, which is a major media company in China and huge player in the gaming space internationally. Just as we were in the midst of our launch, I was also working on these two films. We had done a number of interviews, and more or less I suppose people knew what we were up to with these projects. Before I knew it, our game disappears from storefronts, just in the midst of the launch. When I finally reached our rep over at Tencent, I was told that the Chinese government had contacted them.
Even though the game had already been approved through the censorship office at two different ministries in the Chinese government, the authorities had told Tencent they had to cut ties with my company, and Tencent immediately obliged. I was told, “Are you perhaps doing something not aligned with the Chinese government direction?” At the same time, my wife’s family members, who are in Northeast China, started receiving calls from the Public Security Bureau in China saying, “We know what you’re up to overseas.” It was sort of a veiled threat, I would imagine.
It’s easy to look at these things from an individual perspective and say, “Is the cost worth it?” But then you realize it’s the same calculation that has been happening with so many people. If we all continue in that same vein, then where does that lead us? For me, after spending time with these individuals who had risked so much more, and had endured so much more, and who still wanted to tell their stories, I couldn’t bring myself to not carry on and tell their stories. It’s important.
Mr. Jekielek: The film is going to become massive. It’s a compelling story. It’s beautifully done. Will that create more of a danger? That’s the question, right?
Mr. Loftus: It’s a good question, but there is something that I learned from these witnesses. As a filmmaker, when you speak with your film subjects, you always need to be cognizant of the potential harm to your subjects. That’s something that you need to think through. This question would come up when they come out of China, “Are you sure that you want to tell this story? What parts are you comfortable with telling, and what parts are you not comfortable with telling?” The repeated theme that I got from these subjects is that the best recourse they have is to expose what they have been through.
First of all, they want to. They have gone through so much, they have persisted in what they believe, and they want to tell their story. They also believe, practically speaking, that the best way to protect themselves and protect others is to shine a light on what they’re doing. And I understood that. With the interference of the authorities going after business contacts and family members in China, and in the spirit of what I was seeing from these witnesses who were coming out of China, I thought, “Okay, to a certain extent, the Chinese government is trying to see how I will react.” So, if they put pressure on family or business, does that silence you? Because if it does, then they will do more of it. They now know that they can get you to behave how they want you to behave.
But, you can flip the script and say, “Okay, whatever they’re going to do to me, then I’m going to let people know about it.” So, I recorded that call with my business contact at Tencent. I incorporated it into the last film I made, Ask No Questions. I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about both these cases of family interference. I specifically pointed out WeChat, which is owned by Tencent, saying that I believe the contacts, both family and business, were likely taken from my wife’s WeChat account. So, there was some complicity there as well.
Interestingly, in the aftermath of doing that, the same tactics haven’t persisted during the release of the second film. But, there’s never a guarantee. Certainly, I would imagine that we struck a chord with the Chinese authorities and they won’t be happy about we’re doing. I’m fully aware of the risks around that. But I also feel, if their goal is to silence you through intimidation, then anything they do to intimidate you essentially becomes information that you can share with the world. That removes the motivation for them to do those things in the first place.
Mr. Jekielek: Jason, it just occurred to me that, through your two films, you’re actually doing the same thing that the hijackers did.
Mr. Loftus: I appreciate that, because I have a lot of admiration and respect for those individuals. I don’t put anything that I’m sacrificing or facing in the same ballpark. But, I do hope to do service. As a filmmaker, when you’re fortunate enough to come across a story that really stirs you to the core, you just want to do justice to that story, so that other people can witness it and experience the same thing that you have. If other people can watch this film and feel that same connection, then I have done what I can.
Mr. Jekielek: This is an incredibly unique film. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. What were the challenges that you found in putting this together?
Mr. Loftus: From a production standpoint, the combination of live-action documentary and animation presented a unique opportunity, but also a very unique challenge. Typically, when you’re shooting a documentary, you’ll just go out and shoot a hundred hours of footage. Then, you sit there in the editing suite and you figure out the story. It kind of comes to you as you start carving something up. Animation is the opposite process, because first you do all your storyboards. You build a little film out of storyboards, like an animatic or like a reel. You lock every shot down before you begin to do animation, because animation is very time consuming and expensive.
So, when you’re taking these two opposite processes, and doing them at the same time, it can present a lot of challenges. People might think, “You just cut the whole film first, and then you add in all the animation later.” But you can see in the film that the character is sharing pieces of what he’s already been working on with people as we’re doing it. It was very much that process, partly by necessity. Because of the limited resources and manpower that we had, making the film stretched out over a prolonged period of time. And so, it’s a special unique challenge.
Sometimes, it’s a leap of faith. You’re making scenes. You know that somehow they’re going to be in the film. You don’t exactly know how it’s all going to tie together, and you’re doing both processes at the same time. So, that was a unique challenge. As a result, there is something very unique about this film, where we are legitimately pulling the curtain back and allowing people to come in and out of the live-action world, seeing the artist and seeing the characters who are directly affected by the story. We are being brought into this very rich, evocative, 3D world, with all of these 2D illustrations.
Actually, from an artistic standpoint, from this kind of 2D-3D blend, there is also something interesting happening. When you watch the film, because of how the camera moves, there’s clearly a 3D perspective to it. But all of the aesthetic is very 2D illustration. This was something we wanted to achieve. We wanted the 3D depth and the ability to travel in a 3D space and to feel present in the environment. But we wanted to maintain Daxiong’s real character in his illustrations, and he’s a 2D artist. So, we would take a scene and flesh out a story that we wanted to tell, and then Daxiong would storyboard it. He would draw panels that would basically say, “Okay, here’s how the scene is going to shape up.”
Taking those storyboards our animation director, David St-Amant, would build them in a 3D space, essentially just with boxes. So, we were building it in 3D animation software. And in that software, we would have cameras, where we would take pictures from different perspectives. Then, we would print out these images on large sheets of paper. Essentially, they’re just boxes printed on paper. We would say, “Go to work, Daxiong.” Then, Daxiong would draw all of the detail on these boxes from different angles. Then, we would scan those illustrations and put them back into the software. That way, as the camera moved around, because we had captured different perspectives, you can see all of the different surfaces and faces of objects that have Daxiong’s illustrations on them from different angles.
We took that even further. In some cases, with the taxi cabs, and the streetcar trolley, you can even see the markers, because it was hand colored as well. He hand drew those things and then he colored them. We just draped those things right onto the 3D objects. So you get that 3D perspective, while maintaining the real hand-drawn and even hand-colored aesthetic.
Mr. Jekielek: The other night, we were speaking with David St-Amant, your animation director. he mentioned that what for me was the most hauntingly beautiful scene of the film, was actually one of the first things he did.
Mr. Loftus: Yes. And it was like that. That was another challenge. When you’re making documentary, you always want distance from your subject. You want them to share their story with you, like in the case of Daxiong. But our challenge was that Daxiong was also a participant in the production process. He was part of the creative team. He was our lead concept artist, storyboard artist and illustrator. How do you manage this? In the early stages, we just wanted to see what Daxiong was feeling. So we said, “Just draw what you feel, just draw.” We weren’t very specific about, “Here’s a scene that we want to have in the film.” We didn’t begin with that. So, this is where you get those scenes with him running from his own paint brush marks. You can see how he’s haunted by his memories, and by the trauma that he had endured.
You can contrast that with this early scene about his childhood memories, the nostalgia, what the city of Changchun meant to him, and the loss that he feels around that. He built that up. He describes Changchun as like a fairytale world for children. That’s how he remembered it. He was kind of oblivious to the political repercussions that even his family was enduring at different times. He was a child, and this is how he remembered it and experienced it. Those are scenes, and there are a couple of others, where it really just comes out of Daxiong.
When we’re interviewing all these other subjects, as a filmmaker, I’m piecing the story together. At the same time, I am also figuring out how to tell this story so that an audience can go on this journey. Then, there is also a bit of distance. Daxiong entrusted us with his art. He entrusted us with his own personal story. And then he trusted us to step back and tell that story so that legitimately, he’s a subject in the film.
He didn’t see the film until we had our Dutch premiere in the Netherlands. He came with me to Movies That Matter. There were five shows that they ran in the Netherlands, four of them in The Hague and one in a remote city in the north of the country. Daxiong said, the first time he saw the film, he didn’t remember anything, because he was just so nervous and just taking it all in. But I caught up with him after the second and third screening, and fortunately, he was really enjoying it and was happy that he had entrusted us with his story.
So, he was seeing the response in the Netherlands. We were the Activist Night film. The Secretary General of Foreign Affairs from the Netherlands was in attendance and gave a wonderful speech, speaking about Daxiong, comparing him to the Tank Man from Tiananmen Square and other iconic figures in the struggle for freedom. It was just a massive standing ovation. In country after country now, being a double winner in Thessaloniki, and with two awards at Hot Docs, he’s just happy. Obviously, as a filmmaker, you love the recognition and the awards. But Daxiong really took a leap of faith with us, in sharing these pieces with us and then just allowing us to make the film. To see him enjoy the film, and then be able to see how the audience reacts to his story, to his art, and to all of this, is very, very rewarding.
Mr. Jekielek: How can people see the film?
Mr. Loftus: Yes. As we’re speaking, we’re just finishing up here at Human Rights Watch in New York. Next up, we’re hitting a half dozen festivals across the U.S. over the next four weeks. People can see those screening dates on our website. One that’s coming up immediately is in San Francisco. We’re the Opening Night film at San Francisco Documentary Festival. People can also stream the film through that festival. But there are more if you’re in different parts of the country. We are in Mammoth Lakes. We are in New Jersey at Lighthouse International Film Festival. We’re in different places. So, check it out, because we would love to see people. We’re going to attend a number of the Q&As ourselves as well. We’ll be in Hollywood, Dances With Films, playing at the Chinese theaters in Hollywood, so we would love to see people out there.
Mr. Jekielek: And the website?
Mr. Loftus: Eternalspringfilm.com. [foreign language 00:53:33]
Speaker 14: [foreign language 00:54:53]
Mr. Jekielek: Jason Loftus, such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mr. Loftus: Thank you, Jan. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Jason Loftus and I for this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
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