On March 5, 2002, members of the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong hijacked state television to broadcast their message to thousands of homes in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun in a bid to «set the record straight» and «counter the government’s narrative about their practice.» The brazen stunt, which involved the hijacking of the TV signal by cutting into the cable network and connecting it to portable video equipment, was orchestrated by a small band of Falun Gong members amid a nationwide crackdown on their faith. Founded by Li Hongzhi in the early 1990s, Falun Gong, a spiritual practice involving meditation and exercise, was banned in the summer of 1999 in a measure that was arguably prompted by the group’s growing capacity to garner support and mobilise in large numbers. On April 25, 1999, some 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered near Beijing’s government compound in a silent protest. The ensuing ban of the group was accompanied by the authorities’ outpouring rhetoric against Falun Gong, accusing it of being an «evil cult» that jeopardises the country’s «stability» and «social order.»
Jason Loftus’ animated documentary Eternal Spring, which racked up a top audience award at this year’s Hot Docs Festival, recounts the dramatic events leading to the TV hijacking and its violent aftermath. The story is told through the eyes of Falun Gong practitioner and acclaimed comic book artist Daxiong (Justice League, Star Wars). Following the TV hijacking, Daxiong was put on a blacklist, despite playing no role in it and was forced to flee the country in 2002 amid sweeping police raids. Two decades later, Daxiong meets with other exiled members of the group, including «the only TV hijacker» to have left China, Jin Xuezhe, who goes by the name Mr. White, and who, in his own words, was «more a survivor than the key member» behind the 2002 television takeover.
Intense and intimate
Combining footage of Daxiong’s present-day conversations with the exiled practitioners and animated re-enactments of their recollections of the past, the documentary pieces together their harrowing accounts of persecution, which are deeply inscribed into their lives 20 years on. The 3D animations, created out of the practitioners’ shared memory, underscore Daxiong’s artistry, where the images coalesce beautifully to depict the people’s subjective interpretations of the events as well as the intensely intimate experiences of fear, trauma, and nostalgia for the lost homeland.
Mr. White, who was captured in 2003, a year after the TV hijacking, recalls being tortured for days in an apparent attempt to coerce him to «recant his beliefs» and «transform» him. ‘Transformation,’ an odd notion in the government’s so-called conversion programme, was a euphemism used for forced renunciation of one’s beliefs. «I couldn’t bear it. Under duress, I signed a statement recanting my beliefs. It was against my will,» Mr. White says. Wang Liansu, detained with Liang Zhenxing, the mastermind behind the TV hijacking, remembers hearing screams emanating from the solitary confinement cells where Falun Gong adherents were held. On one occasion, as narrated by the then inmate, Liang was tortured by four police officers, each with two electric shock batons «until the batteries died.» A year and a half before the TV hijacking, another practitioner Little Wei was condemned to ‘reeducation through labour.’ Imprisoned at the Fenjin Labour Camp «for exposing the persecution,» Little Wei was forced to sing songs like Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China «every day until midnight.»
…the images coalesce beautifully to depict the people’s subjective interpretations of the events as well as the intensely intimate experiences of fear, trauma, and nostalgia for the lost homeland.
A list of gross human rights violations perpetrated by China’s ruling Communist Party against Falun Gong practitioners is long and shocking. Following the night of the TV hijacking, as many as 2,000 people were reportedly detained. A number of the detainees were believed to have died while in custody, some within days of their arrest. «In China, they’d kill a thousand people just to catch the right one,» Daxiong says, describing the plight of Falun Gong practitioners in the aftermath of the TV takeover, including many who did not partake in the action. Mr. Zhang recalls that they were beaten until they could no longer resist and were dragged «like dead bodies.» Dr. Liu Haibo was taken from his home and «beaten until his heart stopped.» Hou Mingkai was detained on August 21, 2002, and «died from torture later that night.» In the autumn of that year, 15 participants in the TV hijacking were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. The main initiator, Liang, was arrested on February 29, 2002, days before the group tampered with the TV operations. He was never freed and was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Liang died in May 2010, at the age of 46.
Chronicles and debates
In chronicling these stories, Eternal Spring does what it perhaps set out to – bring to the fore persecution and human rights abuses carried out by the country’s Communist Party against members of the Falun Gong group while stirring intriguing debates about political propaganda and the nature and extent of religious freedom. The film’s director takes little distance from the people he records, allowing their subjective views and memories to dominate the film. In doing so, the film leaves unaddressed some of the criticisms and controversies around the relatively obscure spiritual group, most recently its affiliations with the newspaper Epoch Times, which has been «tapping into the US right» and amplifying detrimental conspiracy narratives. Yet the filmmaker’s effort to bring cases of abuse into the public realm is noteworthy in light of China’s dire human rights situation and the Party’s decades-long conflict with Falun Gong, during which its adherents have been arrested and subjected to torture and even forced organ harvesting (according to a 2019 independent tribunal sitting in London).