Theaters in 30 US cities this week are doing something almost unheard of within an industry that routinely stifles even the mildest criticism of the Chinese government: They are screening a new film about atrocious human rights abuses in contemporary China. The movie, “Unsilenced,” is directed by the award-winning Canadian filmmaker Leon Lee, for whom shining light on Beijing’s crimes against humanity has become a calling.
In 2014 and 2015, Lee created two riveting films, one a documentary, the other a feature-length thriller, that called attention to China’s systematic killing of imprisoned men and women through the industrial-scale harvesting of their vital organs. Most of those murdered had been prisoners of conscience targeted for their beliefs — in particular, practitioners of Falun Gong, a Buddhist-influenced spiritual movement of serene meditation and moral self-improvement.
Falun Gong emerged in China in the 1990s and swiftly achieved widespread popularity. Tens of millions of adherents across the country were attracted to its gentle exercises, mindful breathing, and emphasis on truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. Wholly peaceful and nonpolitical, Falun Gong was at first regarded benignly by China’s ruling Communist Party. But in 1999, the party reversed course. It had grown alarmed by the movement’s enormous following and resolved to crush it. Falun Gong was declared heretical and antisocial, condemned in the media, and pronounced a dangerous cult. The practice of Falun Gong exercises was banned, as were the possession of Falun Gong literature and the display of Falun Gong banners or symbols.
“Unsilenced” is set against the backdrop of that 1999 crackdown. It is based on the true story of Wang Weiyu (played by Ting Wu), an outstanding PhD student at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and a rising star in the field of machine technology. Like countless fellow Chinese, Wang was a devotee of Falun Gong, and began each day with the yoga-like open-air exercises that attracted so many participants. He also took Falun Gong’s ethical teachings to heart. A scene early in the film shows him refusing to distort a grant application when he learns of flaws in the underlying data. When a friend advises him to jigger the numbers — “Everybody tweaks their data; no one will be able to tell” — Wang chooses to be honest instead. In due course the grant is denied. It is his first intimation that fidelity to the truth may carry a stiff cost.
As the government’s campaign to malign Falun Gong and suppress its supporters escalates, Wang and three of his friends resolve to defend the reputation of a discipline they know to be inoffensive and decent. The dean of Tsinghua pressures him to sign a statement condemning Falun Gong as “anti-science, anti-human, and anti-society.” When he demurs, he is expelled from the university.
Deploying all the power of a state-controlled media, the Communist Party spreads increasingly grotesque and lurid libels about Falun Gong and its practitioners, portraying them as violent and deranged. Wang and his friends, determined not to let such lies go unanswered, look for ways to publicize the facts. From a Beijing overpass, they drape a banner reading “Falun Gong is good.” They print pro-Falun Gong flyers and insert them in residential mailboxes. They even rig balloon drops to spread their message across the city. But the students’ earnest intentions are no match for the Chinese police state. Two of Wang’s four friends are arrested and tortured. One survives, but the second dies under brutal interrogation. Eventually Wang, too, is seized.
A key theme of “Unsilenced” is how easy it is for the Big Lie of a totalitarian state to drown out the truth — even a truth known to tens of millions of people. The bloody fist of government repression, combined with the sweeping tools of modern surveillance and communication technology, empowers Beijing not just to crush religious and ethnic minorities but to do so with impunity. In the years following the crackdown of 1999, China’s savage onslaught against Falun Gong deepened into the unspeakable horror of literally butchering its practitioners for their organs. Equally ghastly has been China’s treatment of Buddhists in Tibet and Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
No evil regime lasts forever. Nazi Germany eventually came to an ignominious end. So did the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Baathist Iraq under Saddam Hussein. China, too, will one day be free of the wretched dictatorship that has ruled it since 1949. But nothing will ever compensate for the millions of human lives destroyed by that dictatorship, nor for its vast toll of fear, suffering, and wanton cruelty.
It isn’t easy to make movies like “Unsilenced.” China wields considerable economic power in the West, and most of the film industry is far more concerned with staying in Beijing’s good graces than with calling the world’s attention to its crimes. Many actors and studio employees will not work on a movie likely to offend the Chinese government. Though “Unsilenced” was filmed in Taiwan and edited in Canada, Lee struggled to assemble the talent and locations needed to produce the film. And of those who were brave enough to work with him, many insisted on being listed in the credits anonymously or under an alias.
Despite such roadblocks, Lee persisted. The movie is not yet playing in the Boston area, but if you are in one of the cities where “Unsilenced” is being screened this week, you have the opportunity not just to view a powerful and affecting film but also to counter China’s efforts to intimidate those who would tell the truth. China’s dictators don’t want you to see “Unsilenced.” So go see it.