Sleeping in the center of Taipei, director Leon Lee did not have to look far to find the social relevance of the film he was making.
“I was awakened by loud noises which turned out to be Taiwan’s fighter jets scrambling,” Lee recalls. “Prior to that, China’s intimidation and harassment was just a headline in a newspaper, but now this is real.”
Lee is no stranger to the intricacies and transgressions of the Chinese government. A Peabody Award-winning documentarian, he has spent the last eight years creating films about human rights abuses within the country. With his newest film, Lee sets his sights on religious persecution in the heart of Beijing, crafting a character piece in the midst of a dissenting political statement.
Lee’s film, “Unsilenced,” chronicles the Chinese Communist Party’s banning of the spiritual practice Falun Gong in 1999. Based on a true story, the film follows a group of university students and Falun Gong practitioners as they rebel against government directives, misinformation and violent oppression. A steady dissection of propaganda and religious freedom, “Unsilenced” grants Lee the opportunity to balance his critiques of the Chinese government’s practices with humanistic portrayals of struggling citizens. For Lee, the gripping narrative structure and moments of stark reality are required to resonate with a global audience.
“This film is not just for the West,” Lee says. “It’s also for the people of China, including the CCP officials. I want them to see it nodding, realizing it is their life.”
Lee’s film bifurcates its narrative to focus on both Western and Eastern perspectives. In addition to the quartet of students at the center of the film, an American journalist finds himself at odds with the Chinese government’s restrictions on speech and religion. The dual story structure, while imperfect, allows the film to interrogate Chinese governing principles from multiple angles, a necessary adjustment for a filmmaker looking to speak out on a grand scale.
“The themes I try to explore in the film go beyond a group of students fighting for their own freedom,” Lee says. “I think it has something to do with the eternal theme of truth versus lies.
Now, we need to ask ourselves, in our society now, do we value the truth? Do we really have the courage to stand up for the truth? Do we hope that we are able to speak the truth when it matters most?”
Despite Lee’s pedigree and the historical implications at the core of “Unsilenced,” the film’s contentious subject matter complicated both production and distribution. The release of “Unsilenced” signals the end of a lengthy production period for Lee and his team, marked by unforeseen obstacles, political strife, and a global pandemic. These hurdles for production were made even more plain as the Taiwanese shooting schedule conflicted with escalating fears in the region.
“I have no doubt the tension contributed to some people’s concerns over the material,” Lee explains. “We had actors who backed off after signing their deal memo because some people went home and explained to their family how dangerous this could be.”
But, for the filmmaker, there is no better outlet in which to relay his message. “I have loved the cinema since I was a little boy,” Lee says. “I experienced firsthand the power of cinema not only in opening people’s eyes but also to affect people emotionally.”
Now, “Unsilenced” must navigate the labyrinth of pandemic-era film distribution. With streaming services shying away from the film for political and monetary concerns, “Unsilenced” is receiving a limited theatrical release in the United States. For Richmonders, the film can be seen at The Byrd Theater on March 12th, followed by a Q&A by video with its director. In Lee’s view, every screening of the film brims with the hope of reaching out to the apathetic and disaffected.
“It’s difficult to ask people to care about things happening far far away that may have no relation to their daily lives,” Lee says. “That’s why, if you can make sure people can resonate with a story, then they’re more likely to take action.”
“Unsilenced” screens at the Byrd Theatre on Saturday, March 12 at 4 p.m. with a live Q&A after the show via video with Peabody Award-winning director, Leon Lee. Tickets are $8. To learn more or buy tickets, go here.