UM students taking genocide studies will learn about China’s persecution of Falun Gong followers via a powerful documentary with an alum connection.
Environmental design grad Judith Cheung [BEnvD/11], an associate producer and marketing director of Eternal Spring, says this kind of outcome is what they’re after. Because it’s students at her alma mater, it feels extra special.
“This is exactly what we want—for younger people to learn about this. That’s what I really appreciated about the U of M. It just opened my eyes to so many things. It’s just exciting that our film can actually be a tool to help open the eyes of a new generation,” says Cheung.
In conversation with UM Today The Magazine, she shares her journey from the University of Manitoba to Lofty Sky Entertainment, where she helps create and promote documentaries that bring human rights offences in China into focus.
Eternal Spring was Canada’s submission for the 2023 Oscars as the country’s candidate for best international feature film, with its unique mix of real-life footage and animation. It follows Toronto-based artist Daxiong, one of China’s top comic book illustrators (with credits on Justice League and Star Wars), as he goes back to a pivotal night in 2002 in his home country.
That’s when a group of advocates of the spiritual practice Falun Gong briefly took control of state TV during prime time. It was a daring attempt to counter the communist regime’s condemnation of their practice. Officials had banned it, fearing anything that brought large groups of people together when not under their direct control. Daxiong was among those who had to flee in the aftermath.
UM TODAY: Take us back to that night.
JUDITH CHEUNG: They were trying to share with people what their experiences were versus what the government was telling everyone they should think about it. So, they were successful in terms of the broadcast but, of course, immediately after there was a really severe crackdown by the government and they were arresting hundreds of people just to find this small group of people. Basically anyone who was doing the practice had to flee the city or they were arrested.
They did end up finding almost all the people who were involved with the hijacking and they all got sentenced to really long prison sentences. Most of them died in prison. They were tortured to death. But there was one survivor. He was able to get out of jail, and then he fled to Korea.
In Eternal Spring, Daxiong is connected with this man in Seoul and asks him about what happened. Like, how did the hijacking go down? And as the guy was retelling everything, Daxiong was drawing what was happening—who was involved, their motivations.
And that really changed the perspective for Daxiong. He was a bit resentful at first but then he had a deeper understanding.
While the film didn’t make it to the final selection for an Oscar, it did receive much critical acclaim. What sort of reaction are you hearing?
People are really touched by it. They’re shocked this is still happening. They find the artwork breathtaking. It’s a really different take on a human rights story. This film took about six years to make. I don’t think any human rights documentary has used animation to the level that we have.
There are many Chinese expatriates who have seen the film and connected with it deeply. This is very rewarding because it’s a story that has been difficult to tell. Of course, for individuals in the Falun Gong community and those who are depicted in the film, it has meant a lot to see their story on screen.
Many of our other documentaries have also touched on human rights in China. We had one about Anastasia Lynn, this beauty queen who was also speaking out about religious persecution. In Badass Beauty Queen, we followed her story—she had won Miss Canada and she was the only contestant banned from participating in the finals because it was being held in Sanya, China. She was trying to speak out but they were trying to silence her.
Studio head Jason Loftus was also executive producer on a documentary called Human Harvest, which is about illegal organ harvesting and features the advocacy of UM alumni and Nobel Peace Prize nominees David Matas [BA/64] and David Kilgour [BA/62]. That film touches upon different groups—like the Uyghurs and Falun Gong followers and a lot of other religious minorities that are also subjected to this trade of illegal organ harvesting in China.
What drew you to this kind of advocacy work?
I’m from Hong Kong. My parents are from Hong Kong and the whole reason why we left was because of communist China. My parents were afraid of communist China taking over because, even prior to that, my grandmother was directly affected by communism. Her family lived in southern China. They were business owners and because of that her family was persecuted. Her mother and father were killed when she was only 14 or 15 years old at the hands of the communists and she had to flee by herself to Hong Kong and start a whole life by herself. She used to tell me she had enough money to eat one bowl of rice a day.
I’ve always had a passion for human rights and particularly in China. I personally practice Falun Gong. When I was attending the U of M, I used to volunteer for the Falun Gong student group there. When I learned about the persecution of it by the government in China, I wanted to dedicate myself to raising awareness. I’m super lucky in the sense that I’m able to merge this passion with a really exciting and rewarding career in media production.
Are you ever afraid to speak out?
I’m personally not afraid because I don’t have plans to go back there. It’s unfortunate because I really love Hong Kong, but I wouldn’t take that risk anymore, and neither would any of my family members.
Some people are afraid of talking about China in a certain light because of the financial repercussions. A lot of people do business with China. While we were making the film, we had actually signed with Tencent—who is one of the largest gaming companies in China—for our video game, Shuyan Saga. But when they found out that we were working on these types of documentaries, they immediately got Tencent to cut ties with us.
And then the Chinese Public Security Bureau started to contact the family members in China of our executive producer, Masha Loftus, and they started threatening her family and things like that. So, it’s very real.
If you had the attention of all Canadians for one moment, what would you want them to hear?
I would want them to know more about what’s still happening in China in regards to religious persecution of peaceful groups like Falun Gong—which is based on the principals of truthfulness, compassion, tolerance—and human rights abuses like the illegal trade of organ harvesting from prisoners of political conscience that is state-sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party. We explore some of these themes in our art. We’re thrilled that people are connecting with it, and we hope it starts a conversation.
What did you learn at UM that you’re applying today?
Everything, actually. I have a lot of fellow grads who are in marketing/brand management because everything we learned in school is actually really applicable to those fields.
How to present your ideas was a huge part of the program at UM, where you have to conceptualize something from the beginning, build it, and then be able to present that to a panel and be persuasive and convincing about your concepts and designs.
That’s such a big part of the real world: How you present yourself and your ideas and, you know, how you persuade people that this is a good idea. U of M has a very special place in my heart. The environmental design program was a really happy few years of my life. It was a lot of fun and everything I learned there, I was able to kind of build on that for what I’m doing now.
UM graduate students will explore Eternal Spring in Genocide and the Arts, a course led by Prof. Adam Muller, director of Peace and Conflict Studies.
Watch the critically-acclaimed documentary on CBC Gem beginning Nov. 29.