Award-wining documentary film The Persecution of Falun Gong has finished doing the rounds at film festivals, and has finally been released online.
The documentary achieved the daunting task of summarizing 15+ years of the ongoing persecution against the Falun Gong spiritual group in China, within ten minutes on screen.
The film is directed by Swedish born, documentary filmmaker Mathias Magnason, and produced by Paulio Shakespeare through New York-based Swoop Films.
The online release coincides with the 15-year anniversary of the infamous “self-immolation” event that was used by the then Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin, to justify an increase in arrests, and the use of torture in the nationwide persecution.
On January 23, 2001, a group of people claiming to be Falun Gong practitioners set themselves alight in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In the film, live footage and analysis of the incident indicate the self-immolations were staged by the Chinese regime to turn public opinion against Falun Gong.
The film presents stories from eyewitnesses who saw the growth of the popular Falun Gong practice between 1992 and 1999, and the persecution that officially began on July 1999.
Director Mathias Magnason was able to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Below in his interview:
Your tagline for the film is intriguing — ‘How 70 million meditators became the next target.’ Can you explain that for someone who hasn’t seen the film yet?
“One thing that struck me during the research for the film was reading about all the different groups of people being persecuted in China since the communists took power in 1949. Not only spiritual groups like Buddhists, Christians, Catholics, Tibetans, or Muslims, but also journalists, human rights lawyers, pro-democracy groups, intellectuals, artists, etc., etc.
“And in the seventies there was the Cultural Revolution, where more than 7 million people where killed, and in the late eighties the Tiananmen massacre that we all know about. So when you come to Falun Gong being introduced to the public in 1992, and it’s spreading, simply from word of mouth, to 100 million people in just 7 years, and it’s outside the control of the communists, well then you almost know that they will crack down on it…
“So, to me, Falun Gong was just their “next target.” It’s nothing new to them, except for the fact that they haven’t been able to this time. Falun Gong seems to get more and more recognition in society, I think especially because of their compassionate response to the violence against them. They have never hit back.”
What inspired you to make this film?
“I think it’s such an underrated story in media today, involving such a massive amount of people, broken families and lives, that over the years, I haven’t been able to turn away from it. It touched me. I always knew that bringing awareness about it would help them, so that’s what I’ve felt compelled to do.
“There hadn’t been a short film made about the whole Falun Gong story before we started working on it, something people could watch during their coffee break, or in between meetings or whatnot, and knowing that the vast majority of people don’t have time to sit down and watch a one hour documentary these days, the idea of a shorter one came up on the table.
“That’s also when it got difficult, because how do you tell this story in ten minutes? I guess that challenge became inspiration as well.”
How long did it take to make and how did it change along the way?
“It took one year getting all the interviews. We worked on the story and the editing, on and off for about a year, on weekends and late nights. We did five or six completely different stories before settling on what we have now.”
What obstacles did you encounter in making the film?
“I found it hard to settle with a story on this project. I had so many ideas that didn’t make the cut, and perhaps they’re meant for something else, later on, but parting with all those ideas, were obstacles I had to fight in myself.”
Did you learn anything new on the subject, in the process of making the film?
“The different methods of torture two interviewees had gone through I had not heard about before. It was shocking to hear…”
How did you choose who to interview in your film? Was anyone at risk by being involved in this film?
“We looked for people who had actual experiences from both when Falun Gong was introduced and spread in China, and later during the persecution. We wanted it to be their story, not some “expert’s.”
“There’s been many incidents where Chinese Falun Gong practitioners living in the U.S. has been both threatened and physically abused for going public with their personal stories, so potentially, that can still happen to anyone, as the persecution is still going on.”
Can you talk a little about the self-immolation hoax?
“I think it was a very tragic event. They used, or sacrificed, people who didn’t practice Falun Gong, even a young girl, and had them set themselves on fire, just to create an excuse. I think some western media did a good job seeing through it, but in China it had a huge effect, and people who didn’t know that much about Falun Gong at that time, thought it was bad.
“Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported increased arrests and torture of Falun Gong practitioners all over China shortly after.
“Then they also cabled the event out, to every single news station around the world, and even though, as I said, some saw through it, others did not, and I think many people got a very bad impression about something that is not, at this time. I think it was a a pretty heavy blow to people all over the world actually. When you’re being lied to, on that scale, it’s a blow.”
What can the international community do to help improve the situation in China?
“I think they should report about it more, in the media, and invite more Falun Gong practitioners to tell their stories, on TV, on radio, in newspapers, etc. That’s what media should do, be a voice for the voiceless…
“The international communities engagement policy obviously hasn’t worked that well either. The human rights abuses are still rampant, nothing has improved yet, but on the other hand they have stolen many products and business models from the west in this “engagement,” and they have also studied how the western media works, and now they are in full swing marketing dictatorship to the west, through all the media they’ve established here during the last decade.”
Can you talk about some of the audience reactions to the film, or Q&As you have attended?
“People have been quite emotional after watching it. Some started crying, some were upset they hadn’t heard more about. People have been asking me how they can access the film and help spread it, which is a pretty awesome thing to hear after all the work it took to make it; that people want to spread it on their own.”
What is your background as a filmmaker?
“My uncle is a pretty-well known cinematographer in Sweden, so I’ve been growing up with stories about film making, and I always found it fascinating and interesting. He got me into public television as an assistant right after college. Then I worked myself up to a production manager until early 2000 when I picked up a camera and started shooting myself.
“I went to film school for a few years, and in 2002 I did my first documentary airing on Swedish Television. I moved to New York, it will be six years ago this summer. I really enjoy working as a filmmaker in the U.S. It has had a huge positive effect on my career.”
What project are you working on now?
“I run a small production company called Magnason Film where I get commissions from. This week I started a short documentary project with a non-profit organization about an old martial arts system in China called Seven Star Preying Mantis.
“I am going to an old monastery in Colombia with the master in February. I don’t know what will happen there yet, but that’s the beauty of documentary.”