Yifei Wang loves breathing the air of freedom in the United States, but her heart still stays in China, where her sister had been beaten up to death in a labour camp, despite committing no crime.
So Yifei, a former journalist for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and her family members still in China made a daring attempt to seek justice for her sister’s murder, even if it means secretly filming the labour camp’s director and demanding to recover her sister’s hidden body.
She told the true story in the award-winning documentary “Finding courage”, which made its first Sydney debut at the Sydney Mechanics School of Art last Friday.
The 80-minute film unfolds the journey of a Chinese family who overcame their tragic past to find the courage to stand up for their faith, which, in this movie, is the ancient Buddhist-rooted practice, Falun Gong, under the communist regime’s heavy crackdown.
The main plot is woven with the story of Yifei’s brother, Leo, who suffered 12 years in a Chinese prison for following the meditation practice. Leo hasn’t fully recovered from the trauma even after escaping to America but realised his inner strength was still there. So Leo decided to build a replica of the “tiger chair” he was tortured in to help expose the crime to the world’s people.
“Finding courage” uncovers the rare footage of a meeting with the director in the labour camp where Yifei’s sister was killed. The documentary also reveals exclusive interviews with former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, some of whom used to participating in the persecution and refer to themselves as “China’s walking dead”.
“The movie is extraordinary,” said Sophie York, a lecturer from the University of Notre Dame, “I’ve been slightly traumatised watching it… It’s so well researched and so tenderly put together.”
York said the film helps her better grasp the “barbarism” taking place in China today, praising the interviews with former CCP officials for enhancing the movie’s authenticity.
“It [the persecution] is so evil that it requires people to actually be motivated. They need to feel fortified and galvanised rather than just overwhelmed by the enormity of this horror,” she said, “It’s just horror.”
The 22-year crackdown on Falun Gong, which is based on the tenets of Truth-Compassion-Tolerance, is the longest-running persecution campaign by the Chinese government against its own citizens.
Viewing its growing popularity as a threat to the regime’s atheist ideology, the party ordered its eradication in 1999, using different tactics of torture and brainwashing to force the adherents to renounce their faith.
North Korean audience Kathy Kim said she enjoyed the film’s “human spirit”.
“Although Falun Gong followers are mostly mainland Chinese, I think what they represent is about keeping human spirit strong and fighting inhumanity,” Kim said, adding that she can relate to the practitioners’ sufferings more due to her background.
Candidate for the federal seat of Parramatta in 2019, Charles Camenzuli, said the movie is “timely” as the world’s focus now is on China and its aggressive global expansion.
“I think it’s gonna make people think again about the communist infiltration into all levels of life, into politics, from council to federal, into the movie theatres where it controls the production of movies,” he said.
“I feel very sorry for that family, but I realise that they are actually one of the lucky ones. They actually got out.”
Produced and distributed by the New York-based Swoop Films, “Finding Courage” is the first feature film for the Australian female director, Kay Rubacek.
Rubacek said she “felt indebted to the family to tell their story in the form of a feature documentary” after Yifei’s family secretly filmed their visit to the labour camp and relayed the footage out of China to her.
“The access we gained to this story, due to the bravery of this family of survivors, astounds me to this day,” she said.
“It was their resilience that provided me the courage, as a first-time director, to traverse the difficult journey across cultural, linguistic, and political divides to interweave all the elements of this story into a single film about one family’s search for freedom and justice.”
The production team travelled to five countries and took a total of six years to finish the film, with two and a half years dedicated just to editing the film.
Finding Courage is the winner of at least 7 film festivals and has been an ‘Official Selection’ of 20 film festivals.