There are film-makers on every corner in Park City this week—including some from the Slamdance Film Festival, playing at the Treasure Mountain Inn.
One of the entries is a documentary, “Ask No Questions”, which aims to turn a probing eye on the Chinese government.
The film is an investigation into whether the Chinese government fabricated an incident in Tiananmen Square, nearly 20 years ago, that became a propaganda tool against the Falun Gong religious sect.
The co-director of the film, Jason Loftus, has made a number of documentaries or video programs on Chinese culture, his wife is from northern China, and Loftus is a practitioner of Falun Gong himself.
He said the Chinese government initially tolerated the religion. But by the late 1990’s, when it was reported the sect could have as many as 100 million followers, the government instituted a crackdown and a propaganda assault.
Loftus said opinion on Falun Gong was about evenly split. But an incident in early 2001 led to a major shift.
“So, on January 23rd, 2001, seven people allegedly attempted to set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square. There is video footage of people on fire. And one woman dies on the square. Her young daughter dies later on in hospital. And the state narrative on this, including from the participants themselves, is that they were driven by Falun Gong to pursue some kind of higher state through self-immolation. And that was so disturbing, of course, naturally, for everyone who heard it, that it immediately evaporated all sympathy for Falun Gong, inside China.”
The incident got a lot of attention in China, and made the news in the U.S.
“At that time, in the West, it was something where friends I knew would ask me, “Oh, hey, you’re not gonna set yourself on fire, right? What’s up with that?” It was a news cycle and it passed into the rear-view mirror. But it was meeting people more recently who’ve come out of China, and realizing that this event was far from just a passing incident, that was maybe one news cycle. It was used on an ongoing basis. For long periods of time, it became part of the school curriculum. It was aired in public spaces, it was aired on loop, and with so many follow-up reports throughout all the state-run media and other media in China.”
Loftus said the story was brought to the surface when he heard about a man named Chen Ruichang, a Falun Gong member and a former executive on state-run TV who was imprisoned in a brainwashing center. He sought out Chen to get his story.
“And when we did, it was just kind of, “Wow” What a story he has personally, in terms of what he endured, but also what he was willing to go through because he didn’t believe this incident was real. He believed it was orchestrated by the Chinese government. And seeing how much he had gone through to stick to that position inspired us that there must be something else here that is at least worth looking into.”
The co-writer and editor of the film, Eric Pedicelli, has worked on human-rights documentaries, and he hopes the film will draw attention.
He said that after his arrival in Park City, he had a serendipitous encounter with an internationally-known Chinese artist and dissident.
“The first morning here in Park City, I was walking the street with my wife Alicia, and we walked by Ai Wei Wei. And I thought to myself, I gotta stop, I need to talk to this man right now. Waited patiently while he finished his conversation. He walked over to us, said hello. We explained the film to him that we’re here with, told him how big a fan I am of his work and how important his voice is. He was so gracious with his time and listened to the film. We’ve been in contact, and we’re hoping to get him to a screening, which would be huge for us.”
The film “Ask No Questions” is playing on Wednesday, 6 p.m. at the Treasure Mountain Inn.