‘The Exiles’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

First-time documentarians Ben Klein and Violet Columbus work with veteran Christine Choy to finish her decades-old work with Tiananmen Square survivors.

In a debut doc that is really the completion of another filmmaker’s work, codirectors Ben Klein and Violet Columbus follow documentarian/NYU professor Christine Choy to reboot a project she started right after 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre: Though she spent time with some key figures from that event once they arrived in New York City, and got a good look at the price they were paying for their beliefs, she soon put that footage on the shelf and moved on to other work. Though a mixed bag as a piece of storytelling, the film’s greatest value for American viewers in 2022 is the truth it conveys to those hoping to preserve (or, let’s dare to dream, improve) a democracy facing immediate and very grave threats: Right now is the time to do everything you can think of. Once it’s gone, those hoping to rebuild American democracy may well lose their lives, literally or figuratively.

The film starts problematically, by seeming to suggest its main focus will be on Choy herself, who is called a “loudmouth” “diva” who is “very confrontational” even by her admirers. Asked to describe herself, she says “fuck you.” Todd Phillips, who survived making films about frat boys and punk-rock filthmongers (and who met Choy as a student), looks almost cowed in her presence. However amusing some may find her posturing, her personality has little to do with the lives of the three activists the movie is named for. Happily, it gradually begins to focus more intently on them.

The Exiles

The Bottom Line

An uneven but timely look at the cost of political principles.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Directors: Ben Klein, Violet Columbus

1 hour 36 minutes

Though this would be a poor starting place for youngsters who don’t know the story, Exiles provides a brief look back at June of 1989, when the Chinese government violently attacked peaceful pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. Even today, it’s impossible to say how many were killed there, because the government claimed nobody died and then set out to scrub the events from public records. On-the-ground footage and firsthand accounts tell a very different story, calling to mind the horrors of more recent protests against Chinese oppression in Hong Kong, captured vividly in docs like Ai Weiwei’s Cockroach.

Some of the most visible members and supporters of that protest movement had to leave China immediately for fear of being imprisoned. Along with a swarm of American journalists, Choy met them in a Battery Park press conference, held outdoors so the Statue of Liberty could stand hopefully in the background.

As a native speaker of their language (half Chinese and half Korean, she emigrated to the U.S. at 14), Choy was well positioned to get closer to these men than other journalists. She wound up joining them when, shell-shocked from nonstop media attention, they took refuge at a seaside house on Long Island. Footage from that getaway has a home-movie appeal that makes us more conscious of what they’ve given up, even if they hope (wrongly, we know) the sacrifice is temporary.

Soon, we’ll watch that footage through the eyes of the subjects, three decades older and having made homes in Taipei, Maryland and Paris. The film gives chunks of time to three in particular: Wu’er Kaixi, a student who made a photogenic representative of the most youthful activists; Yan Jiaqi, a political scientist who had at one time been a government advisor; and odd man out Wan Runnan, a capitalist who founded the largest private company China had seen at that point. Throwing his weight behind protesters in ’89, Runnan urged reporters not to confuse that eruption of activism with earlier movements. This was nothing like them, he said, declaring confidently that it was “sure to succeed.”

He was wrong, of course. The film sees what has become of each man before traveling to a 30th anniversary event in Washington. There, American lawmakers celebrate activists’ bravery, but few can admit the extent to which, as Wu’er Kaixi bluntly puts it, “you betrayed us.” For three decades, American presidents and corporations have walked on eggshells with Beijing, terrified of not being able to use China to make money. The Exiles shows how much its subjects gave up and how little they won. Americans who hope to still have a democracy 20, 10, or even two years from now should take note.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Directors: Ben Klein, Violet Columbus
Producers: Maria Chiu, Ben Klein, Violet Columbus
Executive Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus
Directors of photography: Connor K. Smith, Alexander J. Hufschmid
Editor: Connor K. Smith
Composer: Onyx Collective
Sales: Ariel Richter, Endeavor; Maggie Pisacane, WME

1 hour 36 minutes