Propelled by healthy outrage but almost undone by a lack of nuance, the documentary "Free China: The Courage to Believe" is a cry against political persecution and censorship in the world's most populous nation.
At first, director Michael Perlman's movie sounds like an infomercial for Falun Gong, full of vague niceties about the newfangled spiritual practice drawn from Taoism and Buddhism. But Perlman makes smart use of footage from state broadcaster CCTV to illustrate the Communist Party's about-face on the matter. Once Falun Gong's followers outnumbered party members, officials who had extolled the discipline outlawed it. Armed with a doublespeak glossary — and Internet surveillance technology — they cited the urgency of identifying "those who are temporarily ideologically unclear."
Jennifer Zeng and Charles Lee, two adherents who paid the price of "thought education" in harrowing labor camps, take center stage as the focus of the film, their firsthand testimony replacing the director's intoning voice-over narration. Zeng's adherence to the forbidden faith was discovered through an email; the film notes the role of California company Cisco in helping the government install the so-called Great Firewall that enabled it to censor and spy on its citizens.
The details Zeng and Lee recall about the novelty items they crafted in the camps — which supply international manufacturers and apparently even play a role in the black market in human organs — are the film's most memorable moments. Homer Simpson slippers have never been less funny.
Though his treatment of the subject is often superficial, Perlman makes a clear argument for the broader implications, especially for Western consumers. And while his brief film won't stand as a definitive exploration of the topic, it will open some viewers' eyes to the horrifying reality behind many a "Made in China" label.
— Sheri Linden
"Free China: The Courage to Believe."
MPAA rating: None
Running Time: 1 hour, 2 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills
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