Oppression of ethnic, religious or political minorities often finds its fuel in negative and false narratives perpetuated by an authoritarian state via the mass media it controls. Opportunities to combat this narrative are often thwarted by strict censorship and government gatekeepers, forcing cries for justice to turn to more underground means to have their voices heard. Toronto-based filmmaker Jason Loftus has documented the plight of Falun Gong practitioners in China who had their faith declared illegal in 1999 before in such docs as Human Harvest and Ask No Questions, but perhaps never with the impact and beauty of his latest film, Eternal Spring.
Here, Loftus teams up with exiled Chinese artist Daxiong to recount the tale of several Falun Gong practitioners who hacked into state television in 2002 in an attempt to counter the false propaganda of their faith which dominated the Chinese mainstream. The fallout from this airwave heist was dozens of arrests and an increased crackdown of Falun Gong practitioners, including Daxiong himself, which eventually forced him to flee to the United States. The harrowing story is retold not only through interviews of the airwave heist participants, but also via startling 3D animation based off of Daxiong’s art. Jason joined us by phone this week to discuss the making of his latest film, its selection as the Canada entry for the Best International Feature at the Academy Awards and the effect he hopes it will have on human rights discourse.
Director Jason Loftus works alongside artist Daxiong
What was the genesis of Eternal Spring?
I was making a kung fu video game (Shuyan Saga) a few years ago that featured a lot of hand-drawn comic book art. We learned about this artist who was living in New York at the time, originally from China, named Daxiong. He had drawn for Justice League and Star Wars comics and he had also worked with (the) preeminent kung fu novelist in China, Jin Yong. The guy’s got amazing artist talent.
We invited him up to Toronto and he was collaborating with us in our studio. I learned that he was from Changchun which is the same hometown in Northeast China as my wife and producing partner, Masha Loftus. Masha is the daughter of a mid-level government official there. She didn’t have any connections with the Falun Gong community that Daixong was a part of, or any sort of dissident or persecuted groups, so hearing what Daxiong had gone through and how he had to leave his home and flee in the aftermath of this TV airwaves heist that happened, really hit home for her, just hearing what people had endured.
For me, I had a familiarity with Falun Gong. I had an interest in eastern philosophy and meditation in high school, so I had come across it prior to there being a crackdown in China. So I had this seed of interest in the subject and a concern for the human rights situation in China. So collectively, we just came across Daxiong and his remarkable story. He’s lost his home, he’s endured torture in Chinese police custody. Just seeing his ability to bring things to life through his pen, just the drawings he was making were so evocative. We thought it would be a unique opportunity to explore this heist story and a very real human rights concern through the lens of an artist who has been directly affected by it.
He was a willing participant and I think he was looking to understand the event better himself. He wasn’t someone who was directly involved in the highjacking, but he was part of the community and he had endured the consequences of it in the aftermath. So we went on this journey and fortunately we were able to find that there was one surviving TV hijacker who had managed to leave China and was living in Seoul, the man who goes by “Mr. White”. That really opened up the opportunity for us to fully explore this story and what these individuals had done, how they had pulled it off and what motivated them to do this despite the risks.
The animation in the film is quite startling. Can you tell us more about how it was accomplished?
We benefited from having a collaborative relationship with Daxiong prior to this. This helped us explore how we would translate his very detailed illustrations which have a very unique feel and how we would bring that to life in a more 3D space where we wanted to give people a sense of place. I think the drawings really communicate a sense of what his experience was like, but how do you do that and also make them not static?
So we developed a process in collaboration with Daxiong where he would do storyboards for us. Then we would go into the Maya 3D animation software and we would build “greybox” versions of the environments. Then we would use the cameras in the animation software to take images from different perspectives and we would then print those out.
So we would essentially have “boxes” (on the paper) of where the background buildings would be and such. And then he would go to town and he would just draw all the detail on top of that on the different angels that we had printed out.
Then we would scan them and then drape those illustrations back onto the objects in the 3D space. This allowed us to create this kind of effect where you see all of his actual drawings. Like when you see that taxi cab in the opening shot, you can even see the marker detail and he coloured it by hand and we scanned it and threw it on top of the objects. You see that with the street trolley in his childhood memory sequence as well.
So you see these details, but at the same time, you’re immersed in it. The goal was to try and really bring you into his mind as an artist. What does it feel like for him to create this 3D perspective? That’s what allowed us to do this (opening) oner where you’re going into this animation and you’re experiencing the sense of what it’s like where at every turn you could be arrested. There’s this massive police dragnet trying to track down anybody who has any kind of connection with this event. So we wanted to create that sense and that feeling that Daxiong was communicating and this process allowed us to do that.
Documentaries typically take a long time to produce. How long did it take to get all the necessary elements like interviews and animation together?
For us, it was a unique and ambitious project. So this one stretched out close to six years (for) the full production process. As an indie studio, we had to do other things at the same time. But this was something where there was a lot of passion directed at it. Not just from Daxiong and the other participants, but from our small-but-powerful animation team.
If you look at the end credits for an animated feature, you can typically go for a coffee, come back and the names are still rolling! We’ve got four people in the animation department including the animation director, David St-Amant, so it was a really lean team. One guy did the lighting and rendering for the entire production which is probably a record for a feature! So it was a small team, but we just kind of chipped away at it and one of the reasons was this unique process we were doing.
I’ve seen other documentaries that have used animation. Flee was a big hit last year (and) there have been others in the past that I liked. But what excited me about this was the opportunity to have the animation in the documentary not just be sort of the “artistic” decision by the invisible hand of the director, but instead to be something that is intimate to the storytelling.
So we were able to see the artist and the artist is someone who has a personal connection to the events and you see how that connection and everything that he has experienced is interpreted through his drawings. We see his nostalgia for his hometown and what it means to be separated from that. You see the layers of trauma later in the film. There’s this moment where Daxiong is running from his own paint brush strokes and these were his own images that he was drawing and this is something that happened early in our collaboration with him where he’s just communicating what these feelings are like. And so the ability to see these things play out on screen, but also to see the artist and see him creating it, I think really pulls the curtain back and adds another layer. We’re seeing the role that art can have or that art can play in helping us to face traumatic events and to gain some new understanding. I was really excited about having that play out on screen.
But what that did from a production standpoint is that it kind of put these two different processes that are quite different into play at the same time and they’re sort of at odds with each other. So typically with a documentary, you might go out and shoot 100 hours of footage and you’ll sit in the edit suite and just carve it up until the story emerges organically through that process.
With animation that’s not the case. Typically what you’re doing is, you’ve locked your script, you’ll essentially have a “radio” cut of the film with audio lock and storyboards. Every shot of the movie is planned and locked before you go to animation because it’s very time-consuming.
But if we wanted the sort of creative process that played out on screen and to have that be a layer of the story throughout the film, then that necessitated that we were doing both of these things at the same time. So we were doing animation at the same time as we were actually figuring out the story in the traditional documentary-sense, just observing and seeing how everything played out. That was a bit of a leap of faith.
What we would do is we would take moments of the film that we already knew were going to be in the film, like Daxiong’s experience with the police raids, missing his hometown, being tortured etc. We would begin animation of that and we’d be able to capture his process of creating all of these things at the same time as we were cutting the traditional doc structure together. Then hurriedly animating all the other scenes that need to be animated (laughs).
So this is a very unique process, but I think because of that, we were able to create this unique live action-animation blend that also showcases the artistic process throughout.
Given that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is averse to unflattering portrayals in media, has this affected your distribution efforts in film festivals and so on?
Yeah. Typically with festivals, you don’t get an explanation when you don’t get picked up. But there are a few cases where that has come to the surface.
I won’t throw the festival under the bus, but a major asian festival that operates in North America had selected the film and then wrote back and said “We had a third-party review committee that said the subject is too sensitive” and directly told us that was why. I appreciate the transparency and I’m not gonna throw them under the bus for that, but you realise that if they still want films from China, if they want to bring filmmakers from China, (then) these are the calculations and concerns people have.
(This) is why these stories are so difficult to tell. Twenty years on, we’re at the anniversary of this event and maybe people remember headlines from twenty years ago which kind of came and went, that there was some kind of TV hijacking. A lot of people never even noticed it, but it was something that was in the newspapers, but it was a flash and we have no access to these people so we don’t know what happened. Even when we do reach them, there’s the intimidation and the threats around it.
The day after Canada selected Eternal Spring as its entry for the (Best International Feature) Academy Awards this year, an office in China issued a list of banned authors. Along with some really prominent names, there’s Daxiong listed there (and they’re) pulling his books out of libraries and such now. He’s got art books that are used in post secondary institutions that teach drawing techniques, he’s illustrated for top novelists in China, so there’s a lot of his work out there that’s now being targeted.
In the midst of making this film, I was making Ask No Questions at the same time, which is another investigative documentary that looks at misinformation in China and the human cost of that. I was producing and directing both films simultaneously and the video game that I mentioned that I was collaborating with Daxiong on, that game was being published by Tencent, which is a major media company in China. In the midst of making these films, Tencent was launching our game, we were in six different places on their homepage and we were really excited about it.
All of a sudden, the game disappears. When I finally reached the rep, they told me that the Chinese government contacted them and told them they had to cut ties with my company and that it was not something with the game. We had passed through all the censorship checks with the different ministries of the government. It was something with me personally and I was asked “Are you doing something not aligned with the Chinese government direction?”. At the same time, my wife’s family in Changchun was contacted by the public security bureau and were questioned with veiled threats.
So those concerns are real. When people say “Hey, you do this kind of stuff, you might upset China and lose business interests”, that’s all real. But at the same time, you see these people, you see what Daxiong has endured to be able to communicate, to be able to have artistic freedom and the freedom of speech and to practice his beliefs and his faith. And then similarly, you see these people that have gone through hell essentially in labour camps and detention centres and they’ve all done that with this goal that they want to be able to speak out to challenge that narrative.
We frequently in the west make this calculation that we might have some kind of business consequence if we upset China. But at the same time, there’s something bigger at play, I feel. These people have sacrificed so much. We, relatively speaking, have a lot of freedom to shine a light on these issues and I think we should use that freedom to be able to help with the situation and shine a light on these individuals and what they’ve been going through.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
I think there are a few things that we hope from all of this. One is that what typically happens with human rights issues like the Falun Gong situation is that there’s this natural sort of compassion fatigue that sets in and we move onto the next horrible thing in the world.
I think what this film hopefully reminds people of is that even if we haven’t heard about it in a little while, that this is still happening there and I think awareness can help the situation. We hope that it’s something that re-introduces the Falun Gong plight as a current human rights issue.
Also, it’s not just about Falun Gong which we mention towards the end. Other groups are enduring similar treatment in China, whether it’s the Tibetan community or the Uyghur Musilms who have been in the news more recently with scores of people being held in internment camps and compelled to abandon their beliefs as well.
The other element that’s really important for me is that there’s something universal in this story. It isn’t just for people who are invested in the human rights situation in China. For me, I haven’t gone through what these people have gone through, but there was something that really struck me and I think that it’s this kind of struggle to be understood, it’s this struggle for the truth. This idea that a false narrative can be used to perpetuate really large-scale abuses and anytime we see a group of people who have been branded as unworthy of any sympathy, who are “less-than” and any kind of treatment they receive is justified. You need that false narrative of hate in order to be able to perpetuate atrocities.
So what I learned through this process is to really appreciate, it might seem at first blush zealous, if people were willing to potentially risk their lives to speak out in the name of their faith that had been misrepresented. But when you understand that it’s the misinformation and the hate that is the foundation of all the human rights abuses, then you start to understand the courage that’s required and the kind of dignity that’s involved in speaking up in the face of injustice.
I think anyone who bases this kind of misperception or difficulty in speaking truth to power, this kind of idea, can really find something in this story and resonate with it.
Eternal Spring can be seen theatrically in Canada beginning Sept 23 and in the US beginning Oct 14