Monday , May 20 2024

Anthem Film Review: ‘The Exiles’ – Steven Soderbergh Production Wins Best Documentary

The Exiles, a film exploring the search for survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, exemplifies extraordinary filmmaking on several levels. It recently screened at the Anthem Film Festival, part of FreedomFest, where it won the Best Documentary Award. It previously pulled in the Grand Jury Prize for U.S Documentary at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The Anthem Film Festival ran this year from July 12-15 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Why So Special?

The film resonated with the audience at Anthem. That’s a minimum requirement for a good documentary. It struck even deeper with the primarily libertarian audience as it dealt with the struggle against the Chinese Communists for freedom. The Q&A after the film went on twice as long as scheduled.

The film’s primary purpose, to find and document the experiences of survivors of Tiananmen Square, co-existed with a record of the demands created by that seemingly straightforward task. It became a documentary within a documentary.

Third, the amazing team of executive producers Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 13) and Chris Columbus (The Help, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) and on-the-ground interviewer and inspiration Christine Choy created a film that was educational, touching and, surprisingly, at times, funny.

Christine Choy

Christine Choy speaks out for freedom and for Chinese exiles

Choy makes this film spark and feel sharp. The promotional material for the film describes this filmmaker and professor as “brash and opinionated” and “iconoclastic.” I consider those understatements. Normally, I am turned off by anyone who works the f-word into every other sentence. I’ll give Christine a pass. By the end of the film, I saw her as a “skinny, Chinese Roseanne Barr.” She also epitomizes dedication.

That dedication kept this film going for decades. Choy began documenting three leaders of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989. The trio had escaped to various locations to seek exile following the June 4 massacre. Choy’s film project collapsed when funding ran out. The footage she collected remained unseen and incomplete until now.

The Journey

Directors Ben Klein and Violet Columbus chose this story for their first feature. They documented Choy’s journey as she traveled to Taiwan, Maryland, and Paris. In each of those locations she shared archival footage with the Tiananmen Square dissidents who have remained in exile for over three decades.

The film blends the archival footage with interviews with the exiles. We come to understand how love for one’s homeland can endure over time and in the face of threats and oppression. It also suggests that if people are not reminded from time to time, they can forget important historical moments.

How many people today remember the “Tank Man”? That unknown, brave soul attempted to block a column of Communist government tanks in Tiananmen Square by standing, weaponless, in front of it. This film brings into focus the truth that the fight for freedom consists of individual choices like that. One of the most memorable moments in the film occurs during testimony by one of the survivors. He said, “You either stand with the tank man, or with the tank.”

Find Out More

You can see Christine Choy discuss the making of the film below.

Learn more about Anthem and all its films at its website and Facebook page.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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