The documentary Free China: The Courage to Believe won the top awards in its category at three international film festivals in April and May 2012. The documentary was directed by Michael Perlman, a filmmaker and activist who previously directed the documentary Tibet: Beyond Fear.
Kean Wong, a Chinese-Australian filmmaker, TV producer and host for New Tang Dynasty Television, produced the documentary and accepted the Special Jury Award on April 21 at the 45th Houston International Film Festival – the highest award given in its category this year.
The 45th WorldFest-Houston Film Festival is the oldest independent film festival in the world and received 4500 entries in 2012. On May 6, the film won the top award in its category at the Awareness Film Festival in West Hollywood, while on May 16, Free China took away top honours at the inaugural International Free Speech Film Festival in Philadelphia.
The film has now won top honours at six film festivals and the music was nominated for Best Soundtrack at the 2012 Hollywood Music In Media Awards. The film was screened publicly for the first time at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 14 and 16.
The Chinese consulate attempted to dissuade the festival from screening the film in Florida. In Houston, the Chinese consulate made multiple attempts to contact festival director Hunter Todd and discourage him from giving the award, all to no avail.
Michael Perlman understood the calls from the consulate to be an attempt at censorship. , and was quoted as saying, in a press release e-mailed by New Tang Dynasty Television, a co-producer of the documentary:
“This brazen attempt to silence free speech and expression of an American citizen in the United States by the Chinese government is dangerous and must be exposed so that these actions will not be repeated.”
Free China tells the story of two Falun Gong practitioners who left their homeland after being persecuted for their faith. Human rights violations in China are the backbone of this documentary, as told through the interviewees.
The two main individuals in the film are Jennifer Zeng, a mother and former member of the Chinese Community Party, and Dr Charles Lee, a US businessman. Both were imprisoned and persecuted in China.
Other interviewees in the film include David Kilgour; former Canadian Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific); Representative Chris Smith, US Congressman and senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Ethan Gutmann, the author of Losing the New China.
Free China documents the persecution of Falun Gong, a popular Chinese spiritual practice, through the stories of the two adherents who were incarcerated and tortured by Chinese authorities because of their beliefs.
The practitioners’ personal stories are told against the backdrop of the 13-year-long persecution faced by more than 100 million Chinese people.
Jennifer Zeng’s story
Jennifer Zeng became a prisoner of conscience in China and a human rights activist in exile. In telling her story, the film examines the journey to freedom taken by millions of Chinese citizens who have chosen to speak up against injustice in China.
Ms Zeng was granted political asylum by Australia and now lives in the United States. She is the author of the bestselling book Witnessing History: One Woman’s Fight for Freedom and Falun Gong. Ms Zeng, who was visibly touched while giving a speech at the award ceremony in Philadelphia, said:
“For me, free speech means two things – whether one has a kind enough heart to see the truth and secondly, whether one has the wisdom and courage to search for the truth, or to simply accept it when it is presented.
“At the end of the day, it is not politicians or governments, but the choices of every single one of us that will shape and create our own future.”
Charles Lee’s three years in a labour camp
Alongside Ms Zeng, US citizen Charles Lee is profiled in the film. Mr Lee is a former Harvard Medical School fellow who was imprisoned in a Chinese labour camp for three years for attempting to publicise the persecution of Falun Gong in China by tapping into the state-controlled television.
Mr Lee suffered the same inhuman treatment as Ms Zeng – mental and physical torture, brainwashing, forced-feedings, forced labour and the threat of becoming a victim of forced organ harvesting.
Both Mr Lee and Ms Zeng discussed their Chinese labour camp experiences of making toys and other consumer products sold in the United States by American companies. The film also examined the role of leading Western technology companies in the development of the Chinese regime’s Internet censorship to suppress free speech.
In the speech given at the Philadelphia award ceremony, Mr Lee, who was accompanied by his wife and 2-year-old daughter, thanked the American people for their role in trying to end the injustice in China. He said the persecution of Falun Gong has reached far beyond the 100 million Falun Gong practitioners directly affected:
“Internationally, it also affects countries that have trading, diplomatic, political and cultural relations with China.
“The persecution is also directly against the universal principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, Forbearance. The test is the toughest one for people of conscience, because they know that Falun Gong practitioners are good people and the persecution is unlawful and inhumane.
“If they want to continue to do business with the Communist regime, they think they have to turn a blind eye to the persecution.”
Mr Lee continued:
“I believe it is the responsibility of each of us to uphold the moral standards that are the foundations of any society. A China without the Communist Party will be a truly free China and a stable friend to all countries around the world.
“With the persecution of Truth, Compassion and Tolerance, you eradicate morality and principles that are the basis of a civil society, a free society, a prosperous society,” Mr Wong said at the awards evening.
“I think that is why the Falun Gong issue is so critical, because if Truth, Compassion, Tolerance and other beautiful spiritual practices out there are allowed to spread, then the morality of the entire nation can revive itself. And then naturally the government will not have to worry about stability.
“If individuals and families are given the freedom to live a moral life so that the society they are a part of is one that embraces and cherishes moral values, that is what China needs.”
Mr Perlman said he directed the film in the hope that it would foster real freedom inside China:
“And to let the Chinese government know they have nothing to be afraid of by allowing freedom in China. Because this is the way that China will become even stronger economically and politically.
“History is on the side of freedom around the world, and it’s something that all of us together, both in the United States and around the world, individually and collectively, can work and make it happen.”
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