'The Exiles' and How Resurrected Footage Tests the Balance of Memory
By Helen Li
In Ben Klein and Violet Columbus’ 2022 Sundance-premiering documentary, The Exiles, the filmmakers follow filmmaker Christine Choy as she reconnects with three dissidents she had filmed for her 1989 project Tiananmen/China Today: Wu’er Kaixi, Wan Runnan, and Yan Jiaqi. However, in developing a new documentary that resurrects collaborative footage from more than 30 years ago, controversies have arisen—specifically regarding what is “truth” when it comes to the editing and synthesis of old footage into a new documentary that collaborates heavily with one of its original makers.
Klein and Columbus met as students in Choy’s documentary production class at New York University. As the two got to know Choy as a professor, academic advisor and eventual mentor, they began to brainstorm a film about her. “She’s just this incredibly important figure in film history, and it feels like not enough people know about her,” says Klein. Columbus adds, “Getting to know Christine really changed what I thought a woman could be in a film space. More women deserve to know about her. So that’s where the impetus for all of this came from.”
The filmmaking partners first conceptualized the documentary in 2016 as a way to honor and educate the public on Choy’s legacy, but the form and shape of it all changed when she handed them footage of events following the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising that had been in storage for 30 years. After viewing the seven hours of original, “incredibly important and historic” material, Klein and Columbus proposed to follow Choy as she returned to this project and eventually reunited with the three “exiles.” It was “a hybrid film within a film,” where Choy, the protagonist herself, could also be invested creatively. The project provided, the filmmakers thought, an opportunity to bring to audiences a perspective about Tiananmen that was rarely captured. The Exiles’ repurposing of the Tiananmen/China Today footage would pose the contemporary question: What do the activists think about these experiences decades later?
Resurrection of old footage in documentaries is not a new phenomenon—and often not without controversy in terms of crediting those who filmed or maintained the footage. For example, Questlove’s Summer of Soul resurrected 1969 footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival that had been “sitting in the basement.” Film archivist Joe Lauro, uncredited in the documentary, played a pivotal role in the footage preservation. “The film is great, and it needed to come out, but the back story is really different than the way it has been presented,” said Lauro in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
In the case of The Exiles, the film received accusations of “selling out the truth,” in a piece in Medium by members of the original filmmaking team, Renee Tajima-Peña, Betty Liu and Ted Kwong, in part because of the omission of their central roles as, respectively, co-director/co-producer and executive producers on Tiananmen/China Today. After speaking with multiple parties involved with the original film, it appears that the creative project that began in 1989 eventually ran out of funding, and Choy placed the film in storage and paid for it through her foundation.
When Klein and Columbus decided to make a “film about Christine centered around an unfinished project,” they tried to reach out to Choy’s former collaborators,” including Tajima-Peña, co-director with Choy, of the 1987 film Who Killed Vincent Chin? Klein confirms that he reached out to Tajima-Peña for an interview in 2018, but both he and Tajima-Peña admit that there were scheduling challenges that prevented the interview from taking place. Eventually, Klein and Columbus decided to move forward with The Exiles, without attempting to establish contact with Tajima-Peña until December 2021, when the filmmakers were readying The Exiles for the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered.
The vehicle of a “film within a film” brings up questions of consent and dual responsibilities—to the audience and to those related to the original and current projects. Collaborators originally involved with a film project may no longer be involved with the materials, when other parties decide to revisit the project. While there were other filmmakers attached to Tiananmen/China Today, the executive producers of The Exiles were mainly in contact with Tajima-Peña, whom Klein and Columbus assumed was unwilling to participate in The Exiles project.
When it comes to dormant projects, there is always a question of the fallibility of human memory; there are numerous ways in which time and logistics can impact our memory and, in cases like The Exiles, whom we eventually remember to credit. Especially when dealing with trauma and matters of safety, the confidentiality of team members takes priority, and it gets harder to obtain consent when reconsidering an old project.
While Liu and Kwong recently revealed themselves as executive producers of Tiananmen/China Today in the Medium article, their involvement had not (reportedly) been publicized at the time of production due to safety concerns, as fundraising efforts were made, according to Tajima-Peña and Liu, “privately through their network of contacts.” Choy recalls that the funding of the documentary was anonymous, and Liu and Kwong state that their communication with the larger team at the time was mainly through Tajima-Peña. They also maintain that they were the first people to have met the dissidents on the airport tarmac when they arrived in New York and continued to be the point people with them during the production.
On the one hand, anonymity works as a means to protect and mitigate risks during a volatile and politically sensitive time period for the Chinese diaspora, but on the other hand, it affects the extent of participation of principle actors in the project. Klein elaborates that even The Exiles as it exists today does not credit many people who were involved in the translation, synthesis and research of the film. “There were a number of other Chinese American students who worked on the film, but are uncredited, because they preferred it that way,” he explains. However, in protecting anonymity, the audience is not made aware of the sacrifices and labor of several people involved in the production process—especially in retrospect, when decisions around credits are understandably not formally noted.
“As filmmakers, we are taking these political risks and personal risks, to try and connect to the participants,” Tajima-Peña asserts. For her, The Exiles creates a false equivalency when it centers Choy, an American citizen (Choy, however, maintains that she self-identifies as non-American), within a documentary about members of the Chinese diaspora who have risked a lot. “We wouldn't be talking about it today had they just simply used the old footage,” Tajima-Peña says.
“There has to be a lot more empathy in our actions in the pursuit of telling a story of not just the people who are in the film, but the people who surround the people who are in the film, who are in relation with those people,” observes Natalie Bullock Brown, a filmmaker and member of the Documentary Accountability Working Group.
Tajima-Peña has emphasized her presence and Kwong and Liu’s direct involvement during the filming of the interview segments of the 1989 footage, which is something Choy does not remember or may not have known, given that Kwong and Liu handled the interview scheduling. This begs the questions: How often is our memory quickened or reshaped by the physical evidence we can find? And how heavily can we lean into memory as “proof” in debates like these?
“Ideally, we [as filmmakers] would all have agreements with each other, our collaborators, but very often, that's just not how documentaries start out,” says Lisa Leeman, filmmaker and professor at University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. “They start out as sort of an impulse and an instinct to film something. We have an informal contract with our audience, however. They're expecting to see a true story.”
This idea of “truth” can be challenging when the basis is something as fallible and subjective as memory. The contract with the audience relies upon the memory of the directors, those featured in the documentary, and the pre-existing knowledge the audience member brings with them. “Memory is selective, and often self-serving,” adds Leeman. Because documentaries are a construct, they’re the filmmakers’ point of view of what really happened. The responsibility towards the audience, thus, also extends to the filmmaker’s framing of potentially unreliable narrators. Understanding why someone remembered things a certain way and determining the story many years later requires interviewing as many people as you can.
Memory is an underlying theme of The Exiles. On one hand, the history of Tiananmen’s events have been erased as generations born after 1989 do not learn about it in their school textbooks; on the other hand, memories of the people involved have faded with age. Constructing an understanding of what happened then and what it means now requires clear communication through the life of the project, memory and physical records, and, ultimately, personal judgment.
When viewing The Exiles, there is a distinct divide where at times, the documentary feels like two separate films: one about Christine Choy, the pioneering documentary maker, and the other with the immersive footage of the three dissidents, synthesized with historical news reportages along with Choy’s narration.
There is no doubt that Choy is a riveting protagonist. Throughout the display of footage of the exiled participants, she talks about her emotional state and memories of the occasion and contemporary times. But she can also serve as a potentially unreliable narrator. “Christine often said, ‘Oh my God, it was so long ago” Columbus recalls. “And I think you, the viewer, are supposed to be like, ‘Okay, this is one person's memory.” With the other exiles who may well be suffering from PTSD, there maybe even more memory loss. She adds that she and Klein decided to include many qualification phrases that Choy used, like “I recall” or “I remember,” to cue the audiences in on the fallibility of memories. Cues like these, though well-intentioned, may well be lost on a large chunk of audiences.
We place so much trust in individuals and their words, that we consider as history. But to distrust them simultaneously also does a disservice to their stories and lives.
“When you’re a documentary filmmaker, you’re often writing the first draft of history,” Tajima-Peña emphasizes. “The way you interpret the meanings of those events really makes the difference.” Additional barriers to entry into the documentary further shape what stories have opportunities to be told, and what history becomes written. She recalls how challenging it was for filmmakers of color to receive funding in the 1980s. These challenges continue still with added censorship and performance demands from entertainment-focused distribution platforms. It would never be an easy task to make and complete Tiananmen/China Today.
Throughout the documentary, Klein and Columbus have to try to preserve the voices of the three exiles. They are faithful to image-based reporting and historical footage and narration. Although, in many ways, this assumes that the audience will think exactly the same way as the filmmakers and it relies a lot on the audience being able to synthesize and share similar experiences enough to draw the same conclusions as the documentary makers. When that happens, it would barely remain an artform that sustains itself on debates and differences of opinions. There is a need for filmmakers who enter a project much after it began filming, especially when resurrecting footage from an older film, to be more diligent when contacting people involved with the original footage, and in keeping all stakeholders updated on the goals and objectives of the new project in development.
“This is new territory in many ways,” Natalie Bullock Brown says. She hopes that through the ongoing work of the Documentary Accountability Working Group and others, the industry will have a framework for values-based filmmaking. From a nonfiction film’s conception, to release and distribution, the group breaks down key questions to consider in order to mitigate anxieties about challenges that may arise later in the creative process. Key values include acknowledging positionality with the audience and prioritizing the needs of teammates and transparency with participants, supporters, and funders.
“We are learning on the ground and in real time as we're working on our own productions,” Bullock Brown continues. “Mistakes will be made. It’s a process period. There’s a community of people who are trying to do the same thing.”
Helen Li is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Her podcast work and multilingual writing focus on youth civic engagement, international affairs, labor, technology, and identity. Her words have appeared in Bitch Media, Marie Claire, SupChina, The Juggernaut, Rest of World, and more. She aspires to learn more about the human experience through different forms of storytelling. Follow her updates on Twitter @helenliwrites.