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Review: 'Free China': A Struggle For the Future of China's Soul

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood June 7, 2013 at 6:06AM

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; The Courage to Believe
Free China; The Courage to Believe

Of course, Zeng does finish her book, "Witnessing History," which goes on to become a bestseller.  There is something deeply inspiring about Zeng's journey--from ordinary citizen to political prisoner to apostate to activist--precisely because of the conflicting emotions she feels about her experience and the fact that she has continued to speak out and advocate for awareness and reform.

Speaking at a screening in Manhattan this past Tuesday, on the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Zeng stressed that "Free China" should not be seen as academic or historical, but rather as a reminder of what continues to happen to this day.  

"After the Second World War," she told the packed theater, "when we found out what happened in those Nazi concentration camps, we as human beings wrote, never again.  Very unfortunately, this is happening again.  The only difference is that while we couldn't do anything to stop what happened in those Nazi concentration camps, we can do something to stop this 21st century genocide, so that when our children ask us in the future, 'What have you done to stop this?,' we'll have something to say, 'yes, we did something.'"

To Zeng and the rest of the team behind "Free China," the film is clearly a means to action rather than an end in itself.  At the screening, audience members were given copies of a joint statement by Bishop Desmond Tutu and Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng released that day to mark the Tiananmen anniversary.  "Since China's Cultural Revolution literally millions of Chinese citizens have been forced into labor camps for offenses related to thought and expression," the petition reads.  "We ask our leaders to speak on our behalf to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party."

Yet despite its serious subject matter, "Free China" feels at heart like a positive film whose goal is to enlist the international community in a renewed push for the personal freedom and liberty of the Chinese people.  During Tuesday's screening, NTD Senior Vice President Samuel Zhou told the audience that increasing access to free information in China is already transforming the Chinese society.  "This is probably the best long-term investment into the future of China's markets," he said.

"Free China" is only one part of a possible opening up of the world's most populous country.  But it serves as a lesson that while China's markets may have liberalized, its political system has not, leaving far too many people under the rule of an oppressive, autocratic regime.  That's something we know, but we often overlook.  Jennifer Zeng and Charles Lee's lives remind us that we have a duty to pay attention.

"Free China: The Courage to Believe" will play from June 7 to June 13 at the Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St, New York, NY, with performances at 3:10 p.m., 4:45 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

This article is related to: Documentary, Politics

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.