Title: Free China: The Courage to Believe
Director: Michael Perlman
It’s safe to say that Michael Perlman, the director of the new documentary “Free China: The Courage to Believe,” won’t be receiving the red carpet treatment any time soon in the glorious People’s Republic of China. (Hell, even simply attaching my name to anything other than a vicious attack review may bring about a mysterious denial-of-service incident on this site.) A damning nonfiction look at the human rights abuses of the world’s most populous country as filtered specifically through two enormously sympathetic, steel-spined subjects, Perlman’s film makes a case for indomitability of the human spirit and the eventual futility of unreasonable autocratic will.
In the 1990s, the spiritual practice of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) gained enormously in popularity in the East. Initially embraced by the Chinese government, the movement — which touts exercise and a return to the ancient values of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs among its pillars — saw its fortunes take a turn for the worse when it tallied more official members (over 70 million) than the Communist party. A governmental crackdown ensued, and the possession or distribution of literature regarding its practice was banned.
“Free China” unfolds through the first-person recollections of two one-time prisoners of conscience who hardly come across as bomb-lobbing revolutionaries. After an email of hers was intercepted, Jennifer Zeng was imprisoned for several years, and subjected to physical and mental torture for her adherence to Falun Gong. Dr. Charles Lee, meanwhile, a naturalized U.S. citizen who returned to China wanting to help stop said persecution by attempting to broadcast uncensored information on state-controlled television, found himself sentenced to three years of hard labor, where he was forced to participate in the manufacture of Homer Simpson bedroom slippers, among other items.
Perlman’s means are modest, and his instincts for editing sometimes shot through with a jangled, nervous indignation that muddies the chronology of the stories being told. This becomes more understandable, however, as the film unfolds, and gets into… organ harvesting? (Yes, seriously.) Still, while “Free China” is brisk (it clocks in at just over 60 minutes), it doesn’t feel incomplete or wanting. What the movie mainly has going for it are the remarkable stories of its measured, sensitive interview subjects, as well as the contributions of complementary bit players in their respective struggles, like New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith.
“Free China” is so interesting (and important, and in an odd way reassuring) not merely because it exposes some of the specifics of China’s abysmal human rights record, but because it also ties this issue in with unfair and unjust labor practices. The stories — both individually and on a macro level — are a travesty, certainly, but if there’s a cold comfort to be found it’s in the long-game absurdity of the Chinese government’s attempts to build a Great Internet Firewall, whereby it can keep out all influences and voices around the world it deems inappropriate, and crash it at a moment’s notice to stifle any gathering storm of protest. This may work for a generation, maybe two. But human nature trends toward curiosity, and freedom. It’s a losing strategy in the long-run, especially as international consensus pools in areas away from China’s opinions.
NOTE: For more information on the film, as well as the social issues it addresses, visit www.FreeChinaMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.