(USA, 95 min.)
Dir. Ben Klein & Violet Columbus
Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
In 1989, soon after the events known throughout the world (save in the place it occurred) as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, New York-based documentarian Christine Choy shot footage of a number of dissidents who fled China after the tragedy of that summer. Using a small budget to pay for film stock and a sound recordist, she filmed gritty 16mm footage of these young exiles as they came to terms with the recent upheaval, speaking up for the dream of a democratic land to supplant the autocratic Communist Party of China.
Decades later, Ben Klein and Violet Columbus use this footage, which has sat unused to reflect on the broken dreams of the student uprising these many years ago. Contemporary interviews with Choy and three of the key participants in her film add context from the players who lived the experience captured on film. The Exiles explores how China has transformed enormously since that era, but the fissures of those days, including the restricted freedoms and lack of political accountability, echo even more during these complicated times where there’s never been a better indication about how events in the Asian nation can have global ramifications.
The film is a look at the titular exiles who left following the attack at the square, but also of Choy herself. Self-described as a half-Chinese and half-Korean American, she moved from Shanghai when she was in her teens fleeing the cultural revolution, emigrating first to Hong Kong, then to Korea, and finally to New York where she’s carved out a life ever since. She is considered a pioneering Asian American filmmaker, and her 1988 work Who Killed Vincent Chin?, co-directed by Renee Tajima, garnered an Oscar nomination.
Choy’s brash mannerisms, perpetual chain-smoking, and acerbic wit make for an entertaining if occasionally obnoxious subject. As The Exiles wears on, some viewers may tire of her tendency towards hyperbole. As a professor at NYU’s prestigious film program, she has taught many luminaries, and it’s perhaps no surprise that the likes of Steven Soderbergh (an exec. producer) and Christopher Columbus (father to the co-director Violet) has assembled to help bring her story to life.
The balance between telling Choy’s story and that of her own initial subjects isn’t always handled quite as elegantly as one would hope, but I found myself swayed by Christine’s own perspectives on events by the end. Even more compelling, however, are the reactions of her original interviewees to her return to their lives after all these years. Exiles is trying to do a lot – it’s partly a rumination on independent documentary journalism in general, partly a love letter to an iconoclastic filmmaker, partly an ode to a massive event that’s purposely silenced by China, and partly a recognition that the fires of political youth do, for some, fade with age.
Choy herself doesn’t shy away from the potential effect that resuscitating this footage will have, and it’s clear that her righteous anger both at the country of her birth and the one she now calls home colours her refusal to stay silent. Klein and Columbus manage for the most part to take all these disparate elements and provide a rich if occasionally disjointed look at various story threads.
Towards the end, Choy begins interrogating the very film we’re watching. It’s clear that, at its best, this is a work of deep introspection as well as one that provides unique footage from a too-often forgotten period. This notion of documentary having the ingredients a time capsule, with the overarching idea of the filmmaker’s own proclivities and interpretations of the events, speaks to the many facets of this story that The Exiles attempts to explored. While it doesn’t always work as hoped, there’s still plenty to applaud for those engaged in this kind of storytelling.
The result is a heady mix of film elements existing within one project, split between looking backwards and at the present. It mixes Choy wishing death upon a U.S. President on the streets of Park City, Utah following Trump’s inauguration, to the very real sense of betrayal that the events of 1989 have been so systematically erased by Chinese authorities. It’s an impossible story to tell in its entirety save by approaching things obliquely. These many facets of the storyline combine to draw a rich and fascinating tale of a filmmaker, her subjects, and the fights that continue to this day.
The Exiles premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.