Ask No Questions

Slamdance 2020: Ask No Questions Review

In the 1990s, China saw a surge in people practicing Falun Gong, a Buddhist discipline that supposedly worried the Chinese government. In response to its growing numbers, the government outlawed the practice and began punishing anyone who didn’t disavow it. Demonstrations and protests happened, some of which resulted in violence, until 2001 when several Falun Gong supporters lit themselves on fire in protest at Tiananmen Square. The news came as a shock, especially to Falun Gong supporters who considered the self-immolation an act in direct opposition to the values the practice promotes. Directors Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli try to investigate what happened with their documentary Ask No Questions, which relies on a smoking gun: Chen Ruichang, a former worker for the state television who believes the government staged the entire incident.

It doesn’t take long for Loftus and Pedicelli’s documentary to hit a wall given their material. The only people willing to talk are Chen and a CNN journalist who captured footage of the self-immolation (which Chinese authorities clamped down on), with everyone else staying quiet and the Chinese government refusing to engage (in fact, they begin targeting deals made between his own business and Chinese vendors to send a message). All that can be concluded here is that there is reason to be suspicious of what exactly happened at Tiananmen Square in 2001. But Loftus and Pedicelli have at least an hour to kill by the time they reach an investigative dead end, leading them to speculate wildly for the rest of the runtime. This leads to theories and ideas that range from absurd to offensive. They look at police video of the protest and wonder if some of the audio was dubbed or manipulated; they criticize one of the protestors for his improper meditation form; and they even consult with a stuntman to see whether the protestors’ burns were real. It’s an odd choice to bring on a consultant for this purpose, especially since one person died from their burns, but I guess it’s always good to be sure.

Whatever good Ask No Questions does in bringing awareness to a major event that deserves investigation becomes undone by its ridiculous speculation. One doesn’t need to look further than a sequence later on in the film where they read passages from an early 90s novel, where they point out parallels between the book’s story of a government cover-up and parts of the Tiananmen Square incident, an argument that reaches so far it could cause tendinitis. Loftus and Pedicelli have made something that feels more in line with something like Loose Change and other conspiracy documentaries that Alex Jones would embrace with open arms. There’s no denying the good intentions of everyone involved, but we all know where good intentions can lead.

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