Slamdance doumentary ‘Ask No Questions’ shows state propaganda’s effect in China
“Ask No Questions,” an entry in Slamdance Film Festival’s Documentary Features, is set to screen at the following times and locationss
Saturday, Jan. 25, 10:30 a.m., Treasure Mountain Inn Gallery
Wednesday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m., Treasure Mountain Inn Ballroom
For information, visit slamdance.com
In Jason Loftus’s documentary, “Ask No Questions,” which will screen Jan. 25 and 29 during the Slamdance Film Festival, audiences can see how propaganda is used to sway public opinion, especially in authoritarian countries.
The film also shows how strong the human will can be.
“Ask No Questions” follows the rise of the Falun Gong spiritual movement in Beijing. The Chinese government began to feel threatened by its teachings of truth, compassion and tolerance.
The film spotlights an incident where five people attempted to self-immolate themselves on Jan. 23, 2001, in Tiananmen Square. The Chinese Communist Party, through an ongoing media blitz, claimed these five people were Falun Gong followers, and attempted to show them as fanatical, cultish and threatening to the Chinese way of life.
The film also shines light on Ruichang Chen, a Falun Gong follower who worked for China’s state TV. When Chen doesn’t denounce his religion in the wake of the Tiananment incident, he, like other Falun Gong followers who refused to turn, are imprisoned and tortured in labor camps for months.
The repression bothered Loftus, who also practices Falun Gong, and spurred him into making the film.
“Having experienced this from inside the (Falun Gong) community and seeing the impact it had on practitioners, I had more of an impetus to want to get to the answers and figure out what really happened,” he said.
The film originally looked at how propaganda facilitates human rights abuses, such as what happened to Chen, but shifted focus once Loftus and his co-director/co-producer Eric Pedicelli heard what Chen had to say.
“He had this amazing personal story in what he experienced, because he had been on both sides of the issue,” Loftus said. “Before being imprisoned, he had been involved in helping craft the media in China as a TV producer. So he was able to provide an inside look of what it was like to create propaganda, and he knew what it took to make it more persuasive.”
Chen, who was eventually released from prison, showed them a manual from his TV days titled “Propaganda Affairs,” which teaches how to create effective propaganda.
Chen told the filmmakers that the secret to propaganda is not about one piece of news, or how it’s fabricated.
“It’s about how you follow up an incident and play on people’s emotions in the most strategic way to the point they don’t assess things anymore,” Loftus said. “You’re taken them far enough emotionally that subliminally they have begun to accept so many of the messages that you want them to. And to think of them strategically using that psychology is quite frightening.”
By focusing on Chen’s story, Loftus and Pedicelli were able to focus on the impact the self-immolation incident had on a major campaign of human rights violations. Loftus said.
“(The campaign) turned the populace against the Falun Gong practitioners,” he said. “I think we still were able to touch on the themes about propaganda, misinformation and how difficult it is to report in countries that are ruled by authoritarian regimes.
Chen fascinated Loftus and Pedicelli, because of that insight.
“He had also gone so far as to become a prisoner of conscious, because he had refused to accept an official narrative of what really happened,” Loftus said. “We’re were able to explore those broader themes through the narrow focus of this one individual’s story.”
Throughout the filmmaking, Loftus began feeling uneasy about how information is released and processed, even in the United States.
“I think about other situations we accept as truths that might not be true just because they haven’t been questioned enough or because the untruths have been repeated so many times,” he said. “You repeat a lie thousands of time and it’s accepted as truth.”
Throughout the making of the film, Loftus began to sympathize with the people who live under regimes that have complete control over information.
“When you start going through it, you find how easy it is to get lost in the weeds,” he said. “It makes you appreciate, even when there is such a divide in politics, like in the United States, that there is an opposing view, even if it’s not always done in an ideal way. Just the presence of an alternative viewpoint is a treasure, that allows us to think independently.”
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