Ask No Questions: Fighting Fire with Fire, by Tyler Smith
The task of a documentary filmmaker must be very daunting. To try to capture the real world – either in the moment or in retrospect – without allowing stylistic techniques and narrative economy to disrupt the authenticity of the project requires a level of tightrope-walking that few directors are fully able to pull off. In the new documentary Ask No Questions, filmmakers Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli do what they can to avoid inserting themselves into their presentation, but their passion for the subject prevents them from ever fully distancing themselves from the proceedings. Many could consider this a flaw; a reason to view the film’s claims with suspicion. And while the conspiratorial aspects of the film do at times seem a little too reliant on anecdotal evidence and personal interpretation, we realize very soon that, when dealing with the evils of a totalitarian government, we are left with little else.
The film revolves around the shocking story of several followers of the Falun Gong religious movement self-immolating on Chinese New Year’s Eve 2001. This coordinated effort took place at Tiananmen Square, in front of tourists and reporters. The Chinese government had been oppressing Falun Gong for years, but it was this incident that finally changed the perception of the movement in the eyes of Chinese citizens. Suddenly a religion that prioritized inner peace appeared to encourage fanaticism amongst its adherents. The event fit so neatly into the government’s narrative that some began to think the whole thing a little too convenient.
And so the directors of Ask No Questions begin to deconstruct the video footage of the event, finding odd inconsistencies with how it was carried out. Not all of the self-immolators died and those that survived spoke often about the Chinese government’s civil treatment after it was over, thus thoroughly establishing in the minds of the citizenry the idea that Falun Gong is the religion that requires the lethal sacrifice of its followers while the government takes good care of even its most ardent protestors.
The film does a thorough job of casting doubt on the government’s depiction of the events, which certainly falls in line with how Communist regimes present their detractors. But there are moments when the film – made by two Canadians, one of whom is a follower of Falun Gong – pushes too hard to draw what it views as clear links between the Chinese government and the orchestrators of the immolation, suggesting that perhaps the whole thing was staged to undercut sympathy for the religious movement. These moments actually work against the filmmakers’ goals, making it seem like they have a personal ax to grind and are thus engaging in a bit of manipulation themselves.
It is in this that I genuinely feel for the directors of this film. It seems almost cruel that the Chinese government can prey upon the emotions of its citizens – playing to their fear, anger, and suspicion – but those filmmakers and artists that speak out have to try to maintain an air of aloof objectivity. If the claims of Loftus and Pedicelli are correct, it is indeed infuriating that a monolithic government can feel so threatened by the peaceful exploits of a minor religious movement that they scheme, murder, and manipulate with impunity. But to incorporate that fury into an attempted exposé immediately casts doubt on the endeavor, which is exactly what the government is counting on.
In the end, it is the humanity of the filmmakers and their obvious exasperation at the audacity of the Chinese government that makes the film work as well as it does. Yes, it could give the viewer reason to suspect their motivations and methods, but it also connects with the audience in a way that many documentarians wouldn’t allow themselves. Going beyond the cold, hard facts and focusing on analysis – hopefully without dipping too deeply into speculation – is a risky move for Loftus and Pedicelli, but it pays off here due to its basis in real, actual humanity, as opposed to the mere appearance of humanity that the Chinese government has long since grown too comfortable with.