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CPH:DOX 2023

Review: Total Trust


- Zhang Jialing's urgent new documentary tackles state surveillance in China to gripping, frightening and heartbreaking effect

Review: Total Trust

One Child Nation and In the Same Breath director Zhang Jialing, banned from returning to China, has made another remotely directed documentary about one of the society-wide, deeply troubling issues of her homeland. This time around, in Total Trust, she tackles state surveillance, focusing on three human rights advocates persecuted by the authorities, but also provides a wide-ranging picture of consequences that are already changing society. The film has just world-premiered at CPH:DOX.

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In Shenzhen, we meet Zijuan Chen and Tutu, whose husband and father, the human rights lawyer Weiping Chang, was arrested in 2020 because of taking on pro bono cases for people who lost their homes in forced demolitions. They have not seen him since, and Zijuan keeps sending petition letters to the government – which, in turn, lowers her own social credit points. This system has been created in such a way that there are more than a thousand ways to lose points and only about 200 to gain them, which, as a woman who volunteers to track citizens and their behaviour explains, affects everything you want to do: from the ability to get bank loans to even travelling by train or plane. She says facial-recognition technology makes her job a lot easier.

In Beijing, another human rights lawyer, Quangzhang Wang, was arrested in 2015 during the infamous 709 Crackdown, along with 300 other activists. Having refused to issue a sham confession, he stayed in prison for five years and has recently returned to his wife, Wenzu Li, and son, who is now eight years old. They are constantly tracked and harassed: in a particularly troubling scene, a group of plain-clothes police officers stop them from leaving their apartment. The neighbours also check in on them, as they have been dubbed “traitors”.

It is this self-regulation that comes across as the most insidious and dangerous element, as journalist Sophia Huang Xuequin, who was first targeted because of her reporting on sexual harassment by high-ranking officials and is now covering Weiping's case, explains. Most people are complacent and have gradually accepted the removal of freedoms. Now the state doesn't even have to censor them, as they are doing it themselves and reporting on their fellow citizens, which can raise their social credit. Sophia is, like the two lawyers, accused of "inciting subversion of state power", a charge that is not clearly defined and is manipulated by the legal system according to what the authorities need it to mean.

However, the most heartbreaking part is how these policies affect families, especially children. Zijuan gets into a heated argument with Weiping's father, who is a Party member; Tutu has a life-size cardboard cut-out of his father to hug and screams insults at cameras pointing at their house; and Quanzhang's relationship with his son is strained owing to his overwhelming feeling of guilt because of missing five of his formative years.

Filmed by three anonymous cinematographers, co-edited by an anonymous editor and co-produced by an anonymous producer, the documentary's access is so incredible that it makes one wonder how they got away with it. It is an urgent, gripping and frightening film, and serves as much as a warning for the rest of the world as it describes China and its increasing authoritarianism. It is a slippery slope from the development of technology to totalitarian excess, and if the misuse is obvious in a country that was repressive even without it, one can fully expect to be tracked in other societies, too.

Total Trust was co-produced by Germany's Filmtank and Interactive Media Foundation, the Netherlands' Witfilm and NTR, Germany’s ZDF/Arte, the UK’s BBC Storyville, Sweden’s SVT, and US outfit Chicken & Egg Pictures. Cinephil has the international rights.

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