Brace yourself because this story is a journey.
Earlier this year, the documentary The Exiles directed by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus debuted at the Sundance. The film, which is executive produced by Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus, and Steven Soderbergh, uses footage of leaders of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests who escaped to political exile following the June 4 massacre that documentarian Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña starting documenting in 1989.
The film uses existing footage from Choy and Tajima-Peña as well as “the present day’s clear-eyed realization that the past 30-plus years have not fulfilled their hopes and dreams for their country and themselves.” On the Sundance site the film is “driven by the iconoclastic voice of Choy and illuminated by the power of film to both traverse and destroy the experience of time, The Exiles brings modern history and the struggle for democracy to human scale by considering the individual costs of a life dedicated to self-expression.”
The footage from Choy and Tajima-Peña was for their own documentary Tiananmen/China Today which was never finished. With The Exiles, Choy travels with this footage to Taiwan, Maryland, and Paris in order to share it with the dissidents who have never been able to return home.
Sounds inspirational and riveting, right? Well, there have been a couple of speed bumps as the film makes its way to Hot Docs in Toronto this weekend.
Tajima-Peña along with Tiananmen/China Today executive producers Betty Kwong and Ted Liu have come forward to say that Klein and Columbus used unapproved footage from their film. Essentially, they are saying that they have been “erased” from the making of this narrative and that the footage is presented in The Exiles in an untruthful fashion.
Last week the filmmakers posted a statement titled “Selling out the truth: What The Exiles film gets wrong” on medium.com. As of the posting of this article, Klein and Columbus have not come forward to address the situation. Steven Soderbergh and Chris & Elenaor Columbus have not either.
If all of this is true, they really will be leaning into the “Columbus” part of their name.
Read the full statement below.
We want to set the record straight about THE EXILES, a new documentary that premiered at Sundance 2022 and is currently making the festival rounds.
The film purports to tell the story of the making of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY, an unfinished 1989 film about Tiananmen Square dissident exiles. But THE EXILES contains material factual errors and distortions of the truth that must be addressed.
After seeing THE EXILES during Sundance, we reached out to the representatives of the two directors Ben Klein and Violet Columbus (the film is executive produced by Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus and Steven Soderbergh) to address the inaccuracies in the film. To date, we have not received any response.
We, the filmmakers who were directly involved with the making of the film TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY, are making this public statement now, as the film is going to be seen by more audiences. The potential viewing public needs to know that what they are watching is not the complete truth.
We are a producer/director and the two executive producers of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY:
● Renee Tajima-Peña is the co-producer/co-director together with THE EXILES subject Christine Choy.
● Betty Kwong and Ted Liu are Executive Producers
As principals in the film team of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY we are writing this statement about THE EXILES to also call attention to the larger questions in the documentary field over ethics, veracity, authorship and accountability.
In the film’s recounting of the origins and process of creating TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY, THE EXILES distorts the truth, erases our own central role in the production, and entirely fabricates one scene. Most troubling to us, is that they misuse the footage and story of the TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY production to shape a narrative of false equivalency that puts American filmmakers at the center of someone else’s trauma.
The credibility and power of any documentary film is its basis in truth, especially when addressing as urgent a topic as the struggle for democracy and exile from one’s homeland. We feel obliged to set the record straight.
The impetus for THE EXILES is footage shot for our unfinished 1989 film project, TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY, that follows Chinese dissidents who fled to the United States after the Tiananmen Square massacre. As described in THE EXILES, filmmaker Christine Choy rediscovers the footage and co-directors Violet Columbus and Ben Klein — her former NYU film students — follow her 30 years later as she reunites with three of those dissidents, Wuer Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi and Wan Runnan. The original 1989 TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY footage and the story of its production is interwoven throughout with the new footage shot for THE EXILES.
In December 2021, we first learned from THE EXILES co-director Ben Klein that the film was being completed. We knew little about the actual film at that point and spoke to Klein and the other producers about our role as co-filmmakers. However after finally viewing the finished film at Sundance, we realized that the problems of THE EXILES are not simply a matter of acknowledgement of the film team, and are far larger than we had imagined.
Erroneous Story of the 1989 TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY Production:
THE EXILES tells a distorted story of the 1989 TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY film project beginning with its origins. In the edited interview with Choy in THE EXILES, the impetus of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY is erroneously described this way: that Choy got a phone call and she agreed to make the film because she had a camera and spoke Chinese.
The facts of the origins of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY are different and must be understood in the environment of trauma and fear during the chaotic days after the Tiananmen massacre. That context is crucial to understanding the true risk faced by the dissidents and people who assisted them. The impetus for the film rests entirely with Kwong and Liu, who initiated the idea and went to great lengths to secure the trust and cooperation of the dissident exiles. They were scrupulous about creating a safe environment for filming.
They then brought the project to Tajima-Peña who was Choy’s filmmaking partner at that time. They agreed to make the TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY project together in collaboration with Kwong and Liu. In THE EXILES, there is no mention of this collaboration whatsoever, despite the fact that as early as 2018, Tajima-Peña had informed Klein that TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY was a joint project. But most important to us, the filmmakers had over three years to fact-check and corroborate the story of the making of the film.
Instead THE EXILES inaccurately depicts the TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY production as the work of a two-person filming team consisting only of Choy and a soundperson. Choy was certainly an important part of the production, but only as one of four of the project’s principals. Kwong, Liu and Tajima-Peña worked in their capacities as executive producers and co-producer/director in all aspects of the project’s conceptualization and production, and conducted most of the interviews (both Kwong and Liu speak Chinese). But an audience cannot know this since THE EXILES filmmakers cut our voices or images out of the frame in the footage they used.
The False Equivalency of Risk:
As noted above, the most troubling distortion of THE EXILES is its narrative of a false equivalency of risk between a filmmaker and the dissidents.
For example, THE EXILES includes an animated sequence in which Choy and a soundperson are driven blind-folded to an interview with the dissidents. It is certainly a dramatic story, but it is not the truth. The fact is we simply drove from New York City to a house in the Hamptons. Filming in that location included a trip to a very public beach, as shown in THE EXILES. There was no way or reason to hide the location from any of us.
Indeed there are pro-democracy filmmakers who face grave consequences for making films that challenge state power, such as courageous filmmakers today who must work in secret and smuggle their films out of the country at risk of imprisonment.
In 1989 there were, in fact, people involved in the TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY film project who did risk repercussions: the dissidents themselves of course, Kwong and Liu who had and continue to have personal and family ties to China, as well as others who assisted us and who put themselves at immense peril.
American filmmakers are often guilty of putting the American protagonist at the center of the political conflict and trauma of other peoples. As the film crew — Choy, Tajima-Peña, the sound recordists and assistants — did not face personal risk for their involvement. Any claim otherwise de-centers those who did and diminishes their work speaking truth to power regardless of the consequences.
Ethics of the documentary:
THE EXILES includes a sound bite of Choy stating that she tells her film students “First rule about documentary film, lie to everyone!”
We do not agree with that statement and wonder if that comment was taken out of context to shape a narrative of a colorful protagonist for THE EXILES film. Tajima-Peña has made a number of films with Choy and is familiar with her body of work, including collaborations with highly respected filmmakers. Over many years, Choy has achieved a hard-earned reputation as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and teacher.
Fidelity to the truth is essential to non-fiction filmmaking, especially today as the documentary field faces a reckoning. The reach of the documentary has surged as an entertainment commodity on ever multiplying platforms. At the same time, the documentary plays a vital role in the democracy while misinformation is rampant, traditional journalism is in crisis, and people who are marginalized from media power demand a voice. In this changing landscape the debate over ethics has dominated the field.
It is important that our original 1989 TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY footage be used to truthfully and honestly communicate the courage and resilience of the pro-democracy movement to audiences today. We firmly believe that a documentary must adhere to the facts and must honor our ethical responsibility as filmmakers, so as not to undermine the credibility of the lived experiences of the people who entrust us with their stories.
It is imperative that the filmmakers of THE EXILES take action to correct the record for their audiences and the public: To tell the truth and not erase it.
Signed on April 21, 2022 by:
Renee Tajima-Peña Co-Director/Co-Producer of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY
Betty Kwong Executive Producer of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY
Ted Liu Executive Producer of TIANANMEN/CHINA TODAY