China
21.03.24
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"One moment of darkness won't blind you forever" – Award winning filmmaker Jialing Zhang on human rights in China

The film “Total Trust” highlights the lives of Chinese human rights defenders Wang Quanzhang and Weiping Chan and journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin as they confront state surveillance technologies that tightly control the lives of millions of people in China ©FIFDH-Filmtank

The documentary "Total Trust," which was awarded the OMCT prize at the recent International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva, shines a light on the lives of Chinese human rights defenders Wang Quanzhang and Weiping Chan–whose cases have been closely followed by the OMCT and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders–as well as journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin. The film's director, Jialing Zhang, believes that the threat posed by advanced state surveillance technologies, which tightly control the lives of millions of people in China, extends beyond the country. The regulation of data usage is a global issue. While sounding the alarm, Zhang also believes in the ability of every one of us to stand courageously against such human rights violations.

What inspired your decision to use filmmaking to expose human rights violations?

I am deeply captivated by the human narrative, the eloquence of cinematic language, and the profound resonance of emotions. Filmmaking is a beloved medium—it serves as a universal language, fostering connections and sharing experiences that resonate with us all. Through the lens of storytelling, we immerse ourselves in the lives of individuals living under surveillance in China, experiencing their anger, courage, and resilience as if we were right there with them, breathing in their reality. It is a potent instrument for sharing profound truths.

Have you encountered any challenges throughout the production process, particularly researching and documenting human rights abuses in China?

Yes, indeed, we've faced numerous production challenges. The constant worry of avoiding harassment looms over our local crew every day. Daily concerns include identifying where to store and transport footage safely, strategizing how to enter activists' homes without attracting unwanted attention, and encrypting our communications. I am incredibly fortunate to collaborate with a film crew of young activists with remarkable courage and extensive experience navigating surveillance and security issues. Thanks to their expertise and resilience, we could complete the film without encountering significant obstacles.

How do you foresee the future of Chinese citizens amidst state surveillance?

On the one hand, the pervasive surveillance apparatus has the potential to meticulously track individuals' whereabouts, social media activity, and associations, making it increasingly challenging to engage in protests or advocate dissenting ideas both online and in physical gatherings. However, amidst this landscape, many young people in China have access to information and possess critical thinking skills. They are discerning and well-informed.

I am reminded of a poignant statement by our protagonist, Sophia Xueqin Huang: "One moment of darkness will not blind you forever." This resonates deeply with me. Nothing contrary to human nature can endure indefinitely. In that regard, I remain optimistic.

What overarching message do you intend for viewers to glean from the experience of watching Total Trust?

Our film exposes the daily reality of technology misuse, shedding light on unchecked power's potential human rights abuse. We aim for our audience to realize the invasive nature of surveillance and draw inspiration from those who courageously stand against it. Additionally, we seek to raise awareness about the subtle manipulation of propaganda, often disguising surveillance as a safety, convenience, and efficiency tool.

It's crucial to understand that the impact of technology is global, affecting us all, and not limited to specific countries like China. Scandals in Western countries also uncover government and corporate misuse of data, frequently targeting marginalized groups. While Chinese companies often garner more attention, numerous international giants are complicit in censorship and collaboration with governments worldwide on surveillance. Geo-political interests usually lead audiences to overlook issues in their own countries, erroneously believing that what happens in China has nothing to do with them. This mindset poses a significant danger. We hope the audience will also begin questioning the use of data, its purposes, and the entities behind it in their communities.

What specific impact are you hoping to catalyze following the release of this film?

We hope for increased technology regulation on both global and local scales, prioritizing human rights over mere efficiency and convenience. Similar to the organic labels found in farmers' markets, considering establishing an independent body in the future tasked with evaluating the human rights records of technology companies could be one of the many potential solutions. With a positive track record, consumers can support ethically responsible companies, empowering them to promote ethical practices.

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