In their debut feature, The Exiles, Ben Klein and Violet Columbus team up with their mentor—activist, professor, and Oscar nominated documentarian Christine Choy (Who Killed Vincent Chin?)—to create a devastating commentary on authoritarian control. It’s a multilayered vision and one that is, for the most part, profoundly affecting.
This is a film about a film. Choy returns to abandoned footage she shot thirty years prior both during and after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Faced with that perpetual problem that indie artists face, she explains that she simply ran out of money. Her memories of filming three prominent activists Wu’er Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi, and Wan Runnan who escaped to the States are vivid and detailed. And the footage, of course, speaks for itself—featuring candid interviews with the men along with a record of their speaking tours.
Ostensibly, The Exiles is both a portrait of an artist and a social doc. This dual focus is unsteady at times, even as the through lines interweave. Nevertheless, The Exiles does uncover a network of complicated relationships.
Choy is larger than life—she’s brash and infinitely enthralling. Her perspective proves vital, but this is a personality that often overwhelms, upending the delicate balance needed for such a profound investigation.
The Exiles does provide an intimate portrait of each man. Perhaps the most important part of the doc comes when Choy decides to track down each one to speak to him in the present. This hindsight adds another layer to our understanding of each man and his sacrifices for the greater good. In this way, The Exiles creates a reflection on a part of history that has largely disappeared as well as an expression of the personal in the context of the political. In doing so, the film shows how the act of recounting individual stories is a process of recovering history.
The Exiles makes an important statement about history. As individuals pay an often-exorbitant price for their bravery, governments remain unfazed and are not called to task. This film becomes an invaluable document that proceeds to show how even the West is guilty through its silence.