SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – If you’re a movie buff and films like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Schindler’s List” leave a special place in your heart, a new release with a limited run in Utah may be right up your alley.
The Cinemark Theatre at Jordan Landing is one of just over 30 movie houses in the country currently playing “Unsilenced,” a movie based on true events about human rights abuses in China, directed by Chinese Canadian filmmaker Leon Lee.
If reviews are any indications about how good the film is, it should be noted that it’s currently rated as an 8.9 out of 10 on IMDb and holds a perfect 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“I was deeply moved by the audience feedback,” Lee says to ABC4.com. “We received lots of messages on Facebook, and emails from audience members. It seems they were deeply moved by the film, by the students’ courage to speak up to stand up against the communist party in China.”
The movie follows a Beijing-based university student named Wang, who is a follower of a spiritual practice called Falun Gong and must risk prison, torture, and even death when the practice is attacked by leaders of the government’s propaganda machine.
For Lee, who has also done movies on China’s alleged illegal organ trade, one of the driving themes of the films, the struggle to fight for truth against an onslaught of government programming, was somewhat reflective of his personal experience.
When learning certain facts about China’s history after he moved to Canada, he experienced a bit of cognitive dissent and struggled to grasp reality.
“When I first came out of China, a friend of mine showed me the video of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. My immediate reaction was anger, not towards the Chinese regime, but towards my friend,” he recalls. “I asked him, ‘Why do you betray our country like this? This is propaganda fabricated by the CIA, to defame our motherland.’ That’s what I genuinely believed. That’s what I was told when I was in school in China.”
Eventually, through his own research, Lee learned the truth about the incident, that the Chinese government had declared martial law and violently suppressed student protesters in the country’s capital city. The ordeal, which resulted in an unknown death toll estimated in the thousands, has been one of the most heavily censored world events in modern history.
Events such as the censorship of the massacre at Tiananmen Square, as well as the persecution of Falun Gong followers, prompted Lee into making his films. His goal, he explains is to show folks in the Western part of the globe how the Chinese government operates.
“They do not see the United States or the West as friends, or even as competitors, they see them as enemies,” Lee says of Chinese leadership. “The very existence of democracies, like the United States, is a fundamental threat in their mind. And we also have to understand how the propaganda machine works in China, how the Communist leaders think and how do they make decisions. The inner workings of the Communist Party in China is also one of the things I want to show in this film.”
Getting “Unsilenced” made was a challenge in itself. Production was done in Taiwan, an area that has had its own issues with the leaders in mainland China. Many of the folks who worked on the film were concerned that doing so would affect their ability to find future employment in China’s booming film industry. As such Lee listed many members of the cast and crew as ANONYMOUS in the closing credits.
“It was a very difficult project to pull off,” Lee says.
While the movie deals with many sensitive issues and has themes and discussions that can be quite morbid, many reviews state that it ends on a positive and uplifting note. That, Lee says, was deliberate and also reflective of his own feelings, even in the face of many reported human rights cases of abuse by his homeland.
“Despite the deteriorating human rights situations in China, and the lack of coordinated efforts from the West to make a real change, I am inspired by the people in China,” he says. “People like ones who were featured in the film are doing everything we can to have their voices heard…They are working day and night to counter the propaganda and have their voices heard. That’s what gives me hope. I think if we learn anything from history, the people will ultimately win.”