‘One Child Nation’ director seeks funding for new film
Among the filmmakers taking center stage at Copenhagen Intl. The funding and co-production platform of the Documentary Film Festival, CPH:FORUM, is Chinese Jialing Zhang with her new project “The Total Trust” (a working title).
Her previous documentary, ‘One Child Nation’ (pictured), which she produced and co-directed with Nanfu Wang, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2019.
Filmed in China, “The Total Trust” explores the Chinese government’s digital social control system – the most sophisticated in the world – and the effect it has on the population.
Its producers say most of the filming has been completed and they will seek to fill the funding gap of €350,000 ($385,000) out of the film’s total budget of €1 million ($1.1 million). ) at CPH:FORUM.
Described by its creators as “a cautionary tale about technology in the hands of unchecked power”, the film gives a voice to those who challenge it.
“It’s about a society that sees everything and all of the social experience that’s happening in China,” producer Knut Jaeger of Germany’s Filmtank told Variety. “It’s the most technologically advanced country, but it’s not just a movie about China: we’re not bashing China. We see this as a mirror of [what’s unfolding in] Western society: it happens here too.
The protagonists of “The Total Trust” include Zeng, who discovers that cameras have been installed in his home, his phone tapped, his travel plans monitored and his social account blocked. It comes after she began advocating for the release of her husband Hu, a human rights lawyer who has been detained without trial since late 2020 for his work defending victims of sexual harassment and gender equality.
While some protagonists’ identities will be protected, others will show their faces, Jaeger said. “They will tell the truth and say what they have to say. We are very close to these people. It will be a very moving film. There are many films about surveillance, but we have a brilliant inside view. There will be a lot of truth in that,” he said.
Through intimate scenes of truth, the film will show how a family gradually integrates into the Chinese state surveillance system, what it is like to live like this on a daily basis and the trauma that results. Zeng meets other families who are also trapped in an invisible digital prison, including Cao, whose husband Zhao, also a human rights lawyer, was recently released from prison after years of imprisonment. A journalist who reported on their case has been missing since September 2021.
Other protagonists include a model family in a community where citizens receive daily scores under a mandatory social credit system program, which is being piloted in several Chinese cities.
The government “controlled the country [tightly] for decades, but it is becoming increasingly sophisticated with multiple policies and projects,” Jaeger said, citing the examples of Project Sharp Eyes and mandatory health apps for pandemic control. “It’s crazy what it does to people – social behavior changes, people change.”
Filming has been postponed several times due to the pandemic: China’s zero-COVID strategy has made it impossible to access or travel within the country, but it has also made the film’s raison d’etre still more relevant, according to Jaeger. “The whole film has become even more interesting because of the pandemic. Now China is doing even more surveillance because they say it’s necessary to save lives, but the data governance they’re putting in place is also increasing massively,” he said.
Jialing Zhang’s directorial debut, “Complicit” (2017), co-directed with Heather White, follows the intimate journey of a benzene-poisoned Chinese migrant worker who takes on the global electronics manufacturing industry. It received two nominations at the Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Ukraine.
“The Total Trust” is co-produced by Germany’s Filmtank, German NGO Interactive Media Foundation and Amsterdam-based arthouse production company Witfilm. Cinephil handles worldwide sales.
The film is slated for release in early 2023.