As the world turns its attention to China ahead of the visit of the new Chinese Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping, to the United States this week, a documentary film presents to the public a side of the country that few ever see.
Free China: The Courage to Believe focuses on the lives of two people who were targets of one of the Party’s most extreme political campaigns in recent memory; after a run beginning in Los Angeles on May 31, it opens for public theatrical screenings in New York on June 7.
Previously the film had been shown only in private events—400 of them, according to the filmmakers’ estimate—around the world, including on university campuses, in corporate buildings, and in government offices.
The documentary explores the stories of Jennifer Zeng and Dr. Charles Lee, both of whom were jailed and tortured in China for their belief in Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that gained popularity in the country during the 90s, but which has been severely persecuted since 1999.
Since its debut in April 2012 at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, the film has won awards on the film festival circuit, including at the 45th WorldFest Houston International Film Festival, and the American Insight Free Speech Film Festival. It won the top award in its category at the Awareness Film Festival in West Hollywood in May last year.
Kean Wong, the executive producer, said that the theatrical run has a dual purpose: part of it is to pave the way for the film’s bid for Oscar nominations, and the other is to help swell a global movement that will call for human rights for all people in China.
“We realized, it’s not just a film, it’s what you do with the film,” he said in an interview in his office in Manhattan. “We knew this film could really provide the tools to empower thousands of activists around the world who want to champion greater freedoms inside China.”
While spreading awareness around the world, Wong also plans for satellite and the Internet broadcasts into China. This, he hopes, will have a “ripple effect,” inspiring people inside China to stand up for justice and freedom.
Jennifer Zeng, a subject of the film, said that given China’s role in the world, what happens inside it these days is everyone’s problem. “If we don’t do something to stop this, I don’t know how we can face our children years later when they ask us: ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’”
Charles Lee has leveraged his involvement in the production to help tell the U.S. Government about “the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party,” so American officials will be better equipped to deal with their Chinese counterparts.
When imprisoned, Lee was forced to make Homer Simpson slippers and other trinkets for export to countries like the United States. He thinks anecdotes like that will bring home the reality of state-sanctioned persecution in China.
“There is the darker side” to China, Wong said. “The regime utilizes persecution and violence and lies as a mechanism to generate fear among the whole population.” The goal, he says, is to stop people for standing up for justice.
Wong says he hopes that Xi Jinping’s visit will be linked with the concerns over human rights abuses in China.
Free China was co-produced by NTD Television, an independent Chinese-language broadcaster based in New York, with which Kean Wong is affiliated, and World2Be Productions, a company founded by film director Michael Perlman, who also directed Tibet: Beyond Fear.
Filmmakers have made inroads so far in their efforts to bring public attention to human rights in China.
On Tuesday, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng released a statement they co-authored, urging world leaders to support universal human rights for all Chinese citizens, and to speak to Xi Jinping about ending “the brutal repression of freedom of thought, conscience and speech” in China.
The statement, published prominently on Huffington Post, links to an online petition that was drawn up in collaboration with Free China’s producers, allowing the public to voice their opposition to a range of abuses in China, including slave labor and “the nearly incomprehensible practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners.”