When I cover film festivals, one of my main goals is to highlight stories by and about Asian and Asian Americans. I’ll admit that when I first saw the description of The Exiles it intrigued me. As a child of Chinese immigrants, Tiananmen Square has always been a curiosity. However, my interest took a nosedive when I saw that the filmmakers behind the documentary about the exiles from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and documentarian Christine Choy were a couple of non-Asian filmmakers.
The Exiles is a distinctly Chinese story. Putting two white American faces behind the camera made me believe that it was impossible for filmmakers Ben Klein and Violet Columbus to understand the depths and complicated feelings behind the student protests and following massacre by the Chinese government. And, in some ways, I’m still not sure if Klein and Columbus (as Choy’s students) fully understand it as much as Christine Choy does.
I’m not sure if Klein and Columbus deserve the accolades and praise for a film that is so clearly filmed in majority by a more seasoned documentarian, in that way The Exiles feels a little off-kilter. These types of documentaries typically have a strong directorial voice and in this, that voice is Choy. Klein and Columbus feel like two students who have been gifted this archive of footage three years after graduation and have cut it together in a determined fashion, but this is not really their story.
As an NYC Tisch professor and long-time documentarian, Christine Choy is the narrator of the documentary and the driving voice behind the film. It’s an odd production because Choy is so much at the center of it. From the history of her experience with Sundance and the Oscars and her most acclaimed film Who Killed Vincent Chin to her activism in America and subsequent involvement in filming the Chinese exiles.
The subject of The Exiles is compelling and heartbreaking. While the first-hand accounts of the attack on the students is harrowing, it’s even more odious in 2022 after a year of protests that turned violent in the United States. Although much of the footage is in Mandarin, what the exiles speak about is familiar to anyone who champions democracy. Even more blood boiling is America’s relative silence after the massacre, as one exile says in the 30 years after the massacre, the United States abandoned their own principles and betrayed democracy, as did the rest of the world, in order to access China’s market. To them, the massacre was an inconvenience.
While the US was happy to welcome the exiles to the country, the exiles who fought for the democracy that the US loves to tout are now completely cut off from their homes. The documentary features primarily three different subjects and reunites Choy with them in Taiwan, Maryland, and Paris 30 years later to talk about the tragedy and their feelings decades later. The oppressive nature of the Chinese government is clear in these moments. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Chinese politics knows that the events at Tiananmen are not talked about in China. Choy and even a couple of Chinese people in the film’s crew acknowledge that signing their names on this project could mean never being allowed to return to China.
As a person who has always felt the pull of two worlds, being raised in a very culturally Chinese family and being close to my Chinese relatives, Choy’s concerns hit home. I struggled to think how I would approach this review, wanting to err on the side of caution. But so too does her statement that as a proud Chinese person, Choy should be able to both criticize her country and call herself a patriot for it. It’s hard not to feel profoundly impacted by her words as an Asian American, especially a Chinese American during these times when Anti-Asian and particularly Anti-Chinese sentiment is rampant.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, The Exiles is a lesson from the mouths of not just Chinese people, but of the people who participated in the protest simply for democracy. It’s inspiring, depressing, hopeful, and soul-crushing. The Exiles isn’t merely for Chinese Americans or Asian Americans, in fact, it should push beyond those boundaries to cover an aspect of history that isn’t talked about enough other than as a passing anecdote.
Despite its questionable film credits, the doc makes its impact. Its honest look at a momentous occasion and group of people is only rivaled by Choy’s own magnetic and unapologetic personality. At the very least The Exiles proves that we should be able to access Choy’s filmography easier these days because she clearly has something to say.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.