Michael Perlman's new documentary "Free China: The Courage to Believe" which opens Friday in New York City for a week-long run, is a brave, upsetting, unabashedly political film that examines the dissonances between China's remarkable economic rise and its appalling human rights record. But for Perlman and the rest of the team behind "Free China," the film is not only about highlighting China's humanitarian offenses--it's about rallying the West to push for the dissemination of free information to the Communist state.
"Free China," a production of New Tang Dynasty Television and World2Be Productions, is at its core a tale story of two activists. Jennifer Zeng and Charles Lee were both imprisoned by the Chinese government for practicing Falun Gong, a spiritual practice also known as Falun Dafa that began in China in 1992. Falun Gong combines elements of meditation and graceful exercises, focusing on three central tenets: truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. Promoted by the Chinese Communist Party in the mid-90s, Falun Gong became the target of government suppression in 1999 as it its popularity increased and the number of its adherents began to rival that of the Communist Party.
The central focus of "Free China" are a pair of one-on-one interviews with Zeng, a former Chinese Communist Party member, and Lee, a U.S. citizen and businessman. Because of her involvement with Falun Gong, Zeng was imprisoned in the Laogai, China's forced labor prison camps, for one year; Lee was held captive for three years. During their time in the camps, the two were tortured, forced to make mass-produced goods for sale abroad (Lee manufactured Homer Simpson plush slippers at one point) and--most ghoulish of all--subjected to medical tests the activists allege were designed to assess them as potential targets of organ harvesting. When the police arrive to arrest Zeng and she asks them why she is being imprisoned, the answer is simple: "Because of your thought."
Documentaries that focus on political issues often straddle the narrow divide between journalism and activism, combining the evidence-based approach of reporting with the call to action of advocacy. For the most part, "Free China" finds itself on the activist side of that line, extolling the virtues of Falun Gong and the peacefulness of its demonstrators while forcefully condemning the Chinese government's response to the movement. But there is important reporting in the film as well, especially in the form of footage smuggled out of China's forced labor camps which documents the deprivation and mistreatment of the country's political prisoners.
These images are shocking, evocative and repellant, at times resembling some of the most inhuman atrocities committed by human beings in the last century. But the accounts of Zeng and Dr. Lee themselves are both the most moving and most upsetting elements of the film. Shot as simple, conversational close-ups and subtly interspersed with footage from inside China, the first-person narratives of the two activists humanize the story of China's crackdown and anchor the specifics of real human experience.
To give just one example, Zeng talks of running away from home and family just five days after being released from a labor camp, overcome with her young daughter's school-inculcated condemnation of Falun Gong. Zeng flees to Australia, applies for political asylum and begins to write a book about her experience. The process is halting at best, she says, because any time she remembers how she renounced Falun Gong to escape the prison camp, she is overcome with shame at having betrayed her values. This, she hypothesizes, is why other Falun Gong practitioners who are oppressed by the regime do not speak out: their will broken, they are consumed by embarrassment and stay silent.