Among the filmmakers taking center stage at the Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Film Festival’s financing and co-production platform, CPH:FORUM, is China’s Jialing Zhang with her new project “The Total Trust” (a working title).
Her previous doc, “One Child Nation” (pictured), which she produced and co-directed with Nanfu Wang, picked up the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance in 2019.
Shot in China, “The Total Trust” explores the Chinese government’s digital social control system – the most sophisticated in the world – and the effect it is having on the population.
Its producers say most of the filming is complete and they will be seeking to fill the €350,000 ($385,000) funding gap out of the film’s total budget of €1 million ($1.1 million) at CPH:FORUM.
Described by its makers as “a cautionary tale of technology in the hands of unchecked power,” the film lends a voice to those who stand in defiance of it.
“It’s about an all-seeing society and the whole social experiment that’s taking place in China,” producer Knut Jaeger of German outfit Filmtank told Variety. “It is the most advanced country technologically speaking, but it’s not just a film about China: we’re not China bashing. We see that as a mirror of [what’s unfolding in] Western society: it’s taking place here, too.”
Protagonists of “The Total Trust” include Zeng, who discovers that cameras have been installed in her house, her phone tapped, travel plans monitored and her social account blocked. This happens after she starts advocating for the release of her husband Hu, a human rights lawyer who has been detained without trial since late 2020 for his work defending victims of sexual harassment and gender equality.
While some protagonists’ identity will be protected, others will show their face, said Jaeger. “They will tell the truth and say what they have to say. We are very close to those people. It will be a very emotional film. There are many films on surveillance but we have a brilliant inside view. There will be much truth in it,” he said.
Through intimate verité scenes, the film will show how a family is gradually integrated into China’s state surveillance system, what it is like to live like that on a day-to-day basis and the resulting trauma. Zeng meets other families who are similarly trapped in an invisible digital prison, including Cao, whose husband Zhao, also a human rights lawyer, has recently been released from jail after years of imprisonment. One journalist who reported on their case has been missing since September 2021.
Other protagonists include a model family in a community where citizens are given daily scores under a mandatory Social Credit System program, which is being experimented in several Chinese cities.
The government “has controlled the country [tightly] for decades, but it’s getting increasingly sophisticated with multiple policies and projects,” said Jaeger, citing the examples of the Sharp Eyes project and mandatory Health Apps for pandemic control. “It’s crazy what it does to people – social behavior is changing, people are changing.”
Filming was postponed several times because of the pandemic: China’s zero-COVID strategy made it impossible to get there or travel around within the country, but it also made the film’s raison d’être even more relevant, according to Jaeger. “The whole film got even more interesting because of the pandemic. Now, China is carrying out even more surveillance because they say that is necessary to save lives, but the data governance they are building up is increasing massively, too,” he said.
Jialing Zhang’s directorial debut, “Complicit” (2017), co-directed with Heather White, follows the intimate journey of a benzene-poisoned Chinese migrant worker who takes on the global electronic manufacturing industry. It received two nominations at Ukraine’s Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival.
“The Total Trust” is co-produced by Germany’s Filmtank, German NGO Interactive Media Foundation, and Amsterdam-based art-house production company Witfilm. Cinephil is handling world sales.
The film is set for release early 2023.