Director Yi Chen Highlights the Dangers of Activism in ‘Dissidents’

The director’s second documentary centers on the lives of three activists in exile. (Photo courtesy of C35 Films Production.)

Director Yi Chen first made waves with her documentary “First Vote,” which centered on the Chinese American community organizing for the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections. But Yi’s next documentary, “Dissidents,” focused on a different political issue: Chinese dissidents. The 75-minute film follows three protagonists: Juntao Wang, a primary organizer of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests; Weiming Chen, an artist whose work criticizes the Chinese government and is routinely burnt down and destroyed and lastly, Chunyang Wang, an asylum seeker who, after being forced out of her home, now protests outside the U.S Chinese Embassy. 

Yi sat down with Character Media to discuss her work process, the unforeseen dangers of documentary filming and more. 

Character Media: What specific elements in the documentaries you watched inspired you to become a filmmaker? Or did your passion for this art form develop gradually over time? 

Yi Chen: I loved watching movies growing up and was inspired by auteurs like Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu, Alfred Hitchcock and so many more. When I went to [the] film program for graduate school, I initially wasn’t interested in documentaries; but, it was in a documentary history class that I watched Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” and Robert Drew’s “Primary” for the first time. I became fascinated by direct cinema and decided to make a cinéma vérité documentary for my thesis project. 

A sculpture by Weiming Chen portrays the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. (Photo courtesy of C35 Film Productions.)

CM: How did you come about covering the Chinese dissidents within the United States? In “First Vote,” you covered U.S. politics, so was it something you learned about through the first documentary, or was it a topic you knew you wanted to cover for some time?

YC: It was the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that inspired me to make “Dissidents.” I first learned about them when I was in graduate school and saw a PBS documentary, “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which was a transformational experience.

CM: Walk us through your process of selecting the subjects for your documentaries. Do you usually have a clear vision of who you want to interview from the start, or does this decision evolve as the production progresses?

YC: I started filming “Dissidents” with just one character [Juntao Wang] who was a primary organizer in 1989 and [was] exiled to the U.S. Without either a Chinese or an American passport, he became a stateless person but has continued his democracy activism. It was eye-opening to see the incredible movement that he has built from the ground up in less than two decades with very little resources. 

Through him, I met the other two characters — [Chunyang Wan] an asylum seeker who protests and lives in a tent outside the Chinese Embassy and a human rights artist [Weiming Chen] who’s making a new sculpture in the Mojave Desert. 

Chunyang Wang outside the Chinese Embassy protesting. (Photo courtesy of C35 Film Productions.)

Visually, their forms of activism are very different, but they have a lot in common. All three of them told me the 1989 protests and the aftermath changed their lives. In an authoritarian country, speaking up for freedom, democracy and justice led to their prosecution. They are exiles [who are] not allowed to return to their homeland, but they long to go home and believe it would only be possible when China becomes a democratic country. 

Not only has the number of characters evolved, but the story itself also evolved many times throughout the process. 

CM: Given the sensitive nature of the topics you cover, what were some of the most challenging moments you encountered during the production process? How do you ensure objectivity and accuracy in your documentaries, especially when dealing with controversial subjects?

YC: During production, my car was damaged twice in the exact same place but in two different parking lots, which seemed like strange coincidences at the time, but sometimes I wondered if they were simply coincidences. Because a lot of the characters’ activism is outside the Chinese Embassy; I am well aware that the security cameras around there record everything, but it still felt pretty terrifying when I had to face someone from the Embassy filming me on his phone. 

Secret Service officers approach during the documentary filming outside the Chinese Embassy. (Photo courtesy of C35 Film Productions.)

It was also unexpected and made it very challenging when American law enforcement, including the Secret Service and NYPD, intimidated me and ordered me to stop filming in public. I made the decision to engage as little as possible because I wanted the film to focus on the characters. But sometimes, the police would even ask me to translate for them. These interactions added additional layers of complexity to the film, and I decided to include those moments because they show that even in the United States, sometimes freedom of speech and the right to protest can be challenging.

The direct cinema movement has been a central influence on my work. I usually film with a handheld camera and attempt to make myself unobtrusive, allowing life to unfold before the camera. My documentaries don’t have a narrator to tell a scripted story but are constructed with observational scenes with the characters. I also worked with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press on “Dissidents” because there are several indictments involved in the film. They did fact-checking on the court records to ensure accuracy.   

Juntao Wang outside an airport upon arriving in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of C35 Film Productions.)

CM: There were a lot of tense moments throughout the documentary. Can you share a memorable or impactful experience you had while making it?

YC: There are a lot of tense moments in the documentary, [but] one of my favorite scenes is actually the scene on Juntao’s birthday. Being in that karaoke room reminded me of a similar scene in Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin,” which inspired the karaoke scene in “Dissidents.” To me, it’s such an emotional scene and a rare moment where we can feel more vulnerability from Juntao in a beautiful and subtle way.  

A Tiananmen Square protest sign outside the Capitol. (Photo courtesy of C35 Film Productions.)

CM: How has the reaction been towards “Dissidents?” Were you worried at all? Or is that something that you’ve learned to ignore?

YC: I’m always nervous before a screening with new audiences because audience reaction is not something that I have control over; but, [what’s] more important [to me] is knowing that I have done everything I can and that I am also my own worst critic. I also incorporate audience feedback in the editing process. I did many work-in-progress screenings to get a sense of what’s working and what’s not working.

The festival premiere at the VC FILM FEST [L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival] was sold out. Some people were so moved that they even cried during certain scenes. One audience [member] said in the Q&A that he thought it was like a spy thriller, not a traditional documentary, [and] it meant a lot because that’s exactly what I intended to do.