Sundance 2022: THE EXILES

Documentarian Christine Choy revisits Tienanmen Square protestors 30 years later

Christine Choy in THE EXILES, courtesy of Exilesfilm LLC.

Filmmaker Christine Choy, known for powerful documentaries such as Who Killed Vincent Chin?, is the subject of Sundance 2022 awardwinner The Exiles. In the summer of 1989, after the Tienanmen Square protests and massacre in China, Choy and her small crew were sent to film the U.S. visit of a few of the Chinese activists: Wu’er Kaixi, a student leader; Yan Jiaqi, an influential professor; and Wan Runnan, a capitalist company-owner who helped the protesters financially. The 50 rolls of film Choy and her crew shot never made it into anything, sitting in storage for decades.

Choy, now a film professor, taught co-directors Violet Columbus (daughter of filmmaker Chris, who serves as a producer here) and Ben Klein (who also worked on Sundance short Stranger Than Rotterdam) through her classes at NYU. In their documentary, The Exiles, Choy speaks frankly about her filmmaking style, her Hollywood experience, and of feeling conflicted about her visits to China, knowing how much the Chinese government has done to whitewash history. She says of the 1989 events, “We have this history… it evaporated.” Interspersed with archive video and more recent visits with the exiled dissenters, Choy is interviewed, chain-smoking and speaking her mind (sometimes animated in a similar style to that in Stranger Than Rotterdam).

Yan Jiaqi, Wu’er Kaixi, and Wan Runnan in THE EXILES, courtesy of FilmNews Now Foundation

Kaixi, Jiaqi, and Runnan — now spread out in different areas of the globe — are shown video of their younger selves as Choy talks to them about their different experiences. Kaixi reflects on the unspoken psychological trauma he dealt with at the time, after seeing numerous friends and fellow students killed: “We wanted a dialogue in 1989. That’s all we wanted.” There’s no government record of how many were killed in Tienanmen Square, but these men and others who protested and left are unable to reenter the country to see family (Kaixi’s story about this is particularly upsetting).

The Exiles is a bittersweet remembrance of this group of people who believed so strongly in their right to democracy, their government resorted to violent, fatal acts in an attempt to silence the volume of dissenting voices. And unfortunately, the support these idealistic Chinese protestors expected from the United States government never came; Columbus and Klein’s film makes a point of showing each American president since 1989 chatting chummily with Chinese political leaders. Having these exiles — along with Choy and her sound man — revisit their former selves makes for a poignant documentary. But the big draw, for this viewer at least, is getting to hear Choy speak her mind.

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