Free China: The Courage to Believe: Film Review

Doc's narrow perspective won't help it reach those it hopes to convince

Two proponents of Falun Gong tell stories of fighting repression in China.

The story of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement embraced by millions and persecuted harshly by China's Communist Party, is one whose geopolitical import is hardly matched by the minimal play it gets in Western media. Filmmaker Michael Perlman hopes to help fix that with Free China, a documentary centered on two Falun Gong supporters who have been imprisoned for their beliefs. But his modest production, which finds him acting as his own narrator and can only offer five interviewees (none of them high-profile), hardly projects the voice of authority necessary to shake off widespread perception that the group is a cult; the film will be welcomed by the faithful but will have serious trouble reaching the wider public whose opinion it hopes to sway.

Jennifer Zeng, a former Communist Party member, and Dr. Charles Lee, a Chinese-American businessman, both saw their fathers persecuted by the Party. Years later, both found themselves inside Chinese prisons, slave laborers making Homer Simpson slippers and Nestle-branded stuffed animals. Zeng was jailed when her faith was discovered via Internet spying, Lee when he tried to turn the technological tables: He was attempting to hijack the state-run news channel's airwaves to counter their propaganda.

These two tales of political imprisonment (and of each subject's post-prison efforts to raise global awareness) are interwoven with an outline of Falun Gong history that leaves something to be desired even for viewers who don't expect the group's critics to have a say. We get only the most vague information about their spiritual beliefs, learn nothing about how the movement began and hear no theories about why Western journalists have paid so little attention to this conflict in the last decade.

We do hear a good deal about the Chinese government's sins, from the Great Firewall (thanks, Cisco Systems and Google!) to allegations that prisoners were killed so their organs could be sold. But much of this has been better explored elsewhere; sympathetic viewers will wish the time had been spent offering more insight into the nature of the movement that has inspired such fear in China's rulers.

Production Companies: NTD Television, World2Be Productions, Parigon Partners
Director-Screenwriter: Michael Perlman
Producers: Kean Wong, Michael Perlman
Executive producer: Kean Wong
Directors of photography: Rumi Geiger, Tal Atzmon
Music: Tony Chen
Editor: Jo Burgess, Tal Atzmon
No rating, 61 minutes