Sundance winner reunites veteran documentary filmmaker Christine Choy with the Tiananmen Square protest leaders 

The Exiles

Source: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

‘The Exiles’

Dirs: Ben Klein, Violet Columbus. US. 2022. 96 mins 

The first rule of factual filmmaking, according to the Oscar-nominated documentarian, professor, smoker and rabble-rouser Christine Choy, is “lie to everyone.” In fact, that statement itself is more about provocation than it is about factual accuracy – one of the main takeaways from this film about the energetically forthright veteran filmmaker is her tendency towards sledgehammer candour, frequently punctuated with liberal amounts of swearing. Choy on her own would be an immensely engaging subject for a documentary, but this picture has a dual focus – it is both a portrait of Choy, and an exploration of an unfinished project: a film about the leaders of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests who escaped to political exile following the June 4 massacre. As such, it can feel a little scattershot at times, but the film illuminates the considerable cost of dissent, both then and now. It’s at its best, however, when it gives Choy free-rein to speak her mind.

Fascinating as the archive footage and interviews are, the film’s energy levels dip whenever Choy is not on screen

The gloriously outspoken Choy – she advocates “a sniper” as one possible solution to the problem of the Trump presidency and took Robert Redford to task for the whiteness of the film festival which would later become Sundance – is undoubtedly the headline attraction for the film. Fascinating as the archive footage and interviews are, the film’s energy levels dip whenever Choy is not on screen. “I should get paid for talking,” she shouts at the camera, and she’s not wrong. Further festival screenings, particularly in documentary events, are likely after a win in the US documentary category at Sundance, and could serve as an opportunity to revisit Choy’s body of work, which includes the Oscar-nominated picture Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)

Half Chinese and half Korean, “skinny and combative”, Choy is an inspirational figure. A former student, the filmmaker Todd Phillips, describes an unconventional force of nature who shaped his thinking about what documentary could be. It’s worth mentioning that she also taught the directors of this project, Ben Klein and Violet Columbus. “Where are you taking this film?” she barks at one point, the role of tutor evidently being one which dies hard.

It’s a fair question. The film unearths footage of student figurehead Wu’er Kaixi, academic Yan Jiaqi and businessman Wan Runnan captured shortly after the June 4th massacre when the three men had just arrived in the US. Choy followed the story, later joining Yan Jiaqi at a beach on Long Island, and further interviewing the charismatic Wu’er Kaixi, before running out of funds and abandoning the project. In 2017 and 2018, enraged by the Chinese state’s erasure of the events of 1989, she is reunited with all three. Wu’er Kaixi now lives in Taiwan; Yan Jiaqi and his wife are in Maryland and Wan Runnan writes poetry and tends vegetables in Paris. The encounters are affecting, but perhaps not as enlightening as they might have been.

What’s most striking is the collective optimism in the early footage and the certainty that the movement would result in real and lasting change in China. In more recent material, shot during a 30-year June 4th anniversary event, an older, more sober Wu’er Kaixi calls upon other nations to have the courage to face up to China “before it is too strong or too late.” The backdrop of the quashing of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong at around the same period suggests that time might be close to running out.

Production company: Maiden Voyage;

International Sales: WME Independent/Endeavor Content

Producers: Maria Chiu, Ben Klein, Violet Columbus

Cinematography: Connor K. Smith, Alexander J. Hufschmid

Editing: Connor K. Smith

Music: Onyx Collective