Earlier this year, Jonas Poher Rasmussen‘s Flee made history when it was triple-nominated for Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature at the Oscars. That achievement could be repeated next year with Jason Loftus’ powerful and moving Eternal Spring, about the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China and the group’s daring mission to hijack national television to combat the propaganda against them. Awards Radar recently caught up with Loftus to discuss the making and meaning of the film, as well as its surprising selection as Canada’s entry to the Oscars.
Shane Slater: I’ve noticed you’ve produced and been involved in several films about China. Where does that interest come from?
Jason Loftus: Well, I’ll give you a little bit of background on this film, in particular, because I think it’s kind of interwoven into that response as well. A few years ago, I was making a kung fu video game called Shuyan Saga and we wanted to use some kind of visual novel components of the game. So a bunch of hand-drawn, static panels. So we learned about this artist who was from China, who is living in New York, and he’s drawn for Justice League and Star Wars and such. And also with Jin Yong, who’s like the big kung fu novelist in China. So we brought him up to our studio in Toronto when we were collaborating with him. And the genesis for this project kind of comes from two places.
So one, he shares the same hometown as my wife and producing partner, which is this city in northeast China called Changchun. So that’s sort of one of my China connections. But Masha was not part of the Falun Gong community, she was the daughter of a mid level government official. She had no connection with any kind of dissident or persecuted group. So for her this was like seeing what had happened sort of under her nose in her own hometown. I think that really hit home. And she felt this is an important story for Chinese people.
I come to this from a different perspective, which is that I had an interest in high school in Eastern philosophy and meditation, and I had explored different things. And I came across Falun Gong, really, because of that interest in the late 90s. So this is 1998. And then a year later, in 1999, when they banned the practice, they started saying these people are evil and dangerous, and we need to get rid of them. I was still in high school. I had very little knowledge about the Chinese political situation. But I was just sort of interpreting what I was seeing from the Chinese state media and comparing that with my own interactions with Falun Gong and the community. And I just couldn’t reconcile these two things.
So for me, that sparked an interest in the human rights situation in China, as well as the subject of what was going on, specifically with Falun Gong in terms of the misinformation and then these efforts that people were doing to try and counter their message inside of China. So I had an interest in that. And I had worked as a producer with a couple of other Chinese filmmakers on projects related to human rights. And then I’ve now directed two films myself. The first was this one, actually, but the other one was finished first, because this one stretched over about six years, and I made the other one kind of in the middle of it.
So that’s sort of my background into the subject. And I think what happens as well, when you collaborate or work on a project dealing with human rights in China, those survivors and people who are coming out of China who’ve been through so much, build a trust as well. They realize that you want to tell these stories, that you want to let them speak and have a voice and such. There’s people from Hong Kong, that are concerned about the Uighur situation who are approaching me with their stories and things as well. And I do care about it. I have an ongoing interest in the human rights situation in China.
SS: How did you decide on the visual style of this film?
JL: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, with Daxiong, I saw a unique opportunity artistically here. And I’ve seen animation in documentaries. I mean, Flee was a big hit last year, although I can’t claim it as an inspiration because I didn’t see it till I finished my work on this one. That’s more recent, but there are others. Waltz with Bashir, I love that film. Many years ago, I enjoyed Tower. It used a rotoscoping method, which is quite different in terms of animation technique. But I had seen animation used and I had really enjoyed it. And I kind of worked across both. I’ve done animation in kids series and different things in that I was working in the documentary space as well.
So I had this inclination to sort of blend these things. But with Daxiong, there was something unique because when you see these other films that use animation, it’s just a decision by the invisible hand of the director. You just see the animation, but you don’t know who the artist is. You don’t know that they have interpretations and subjective elements that they have introduced into the work. It’s just there. And that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. It’s been done very well, I think in a number of cases.
But for me, this was a unique opportunity, because we have an artist whose personal life story is intimately intertwined with these events, right? And this was an opportunity to pull back the curtain so we could not just see the animation but see the artist processing all of these events that have impacted his life. The longing and nostalgia that he has for his home. The pain of torture and the trauma that he carries with him. And he’s facing this event that he has kind of mixed feelings around. He’s meeting people who were directly involved in it, and he’s interpreting that through an artistic process and through that process, coming to some kind of new understanding about the event.
For me, that was just beautiful, because then all the subjective layers that are inevitably present in in artistic work are now more objective, because people are able to see that happening. And they understand what that means for the artist. And it also speaks, I think, to the power that art can have. The role that art can have in helping us gain understanding and catharsis. So that’s what excited me about this one.
SS: As you speak about subjectivity, the film reminds us that much of the animation is created from memory. Was it a positive challenge that you were unable to revisit Changchun in person?
JL: Well, from a filmmaking perspective, it was very exciting for me, because you want the opportunity to do something a bit different and unique, right? And to sort of push the medium. And, you know, animation has been used before, like I said, but this whole idea of blending a live action doc and an animated doc, where you’re art of the live action is basically observing the artists creating the the animated portion. I thought that this was really unique for I think, not just myself, but the animation director, David St-Amant and Yvan Pinard, who was the producer who was overseeing the animation pipeline. Really everyone in the project was excited about this opportunity, because it was something different. And we think we felt that sort of added a new dimension to it.
I also feel like there are notions around animation, you know? Because it is art, because it’s so often used for children’s content, people sort of think of it as an art form that doesn’t necessarily communicate things with the same gravity or seriousness. And I really would like to flip that a little bit.
I think that there’s something really powerful, Daxiong talks about it, when he talks about the artistic process for him. And specifically when he’s talking about the Chinese arts that he’s learned. The Chinese arts are so much about, not just about the details on the surface. Western art really developed with this hyper attention to detail, right? In a lot of cases, at least traditionally. But if you look at the Chinese art, it was much more about the feeling or the mood. And for him, he really embraces that, because that’s what he’s trying to convey to people. He’s trying to convey, what does Changchun mean?
To me, it isn’t about the iconic buildings or whatnot that you see. In any city, there’s a vibe, there’s this feeling, right? And that’s really where the focus is for him, from Chinese art. So he feels like he can communicate his feelings so much more, not through a talking head interview, but through really communicating it through his pen and allowing people into his sort of mindset and his interpretation. A big challenge for us was, how do you take those 2D illustrations, because they’re beautiful, and they’re evocative, but they’re flat, and they’re two dimensional. And how do you make a film out of that, right? And how do you maintain all of that authenticity of Daxiong’s art, but make it feel immersive and really give people a sense of place.
So animation director, David St-Amant would take storyboards that Daxiong would draw for us. And we would build objects like rectangles and shapes in 3D space. Because we were using a 3D software Maya. And we would just build shapes based on the rough idea of how this scene is going to work. Then we would use cameras inside the 3D space. And we would take images from different camera angles from different perspectives. And we would print those out on drawings.
So now Daxiong has a blank sheet of paper, but it’s just kind of rectangles showing where buildings were gonna go, the lines for the street and this kind of stuff. Now go to town Daxiong! And just draw the cityscape, draw how you feel Changchun would be to you in this kind of situation. And he would draw all of that detail, but because he’s doing that from different camera angles, now we’re able to scan those images and drape them on to different surfaces.
So this way the camera can move through the space, right? And you have this 3D perspective, you have the parallax when you look around an object. But at the same time, you still have this feeling that it has this illustrated style that comes from Daxiong’s pen, because those environments are built by him there. In fact, if you look at the opening, we have that long shot, the oner where we don’t have a cut for five minutes. We just come into the drawing and we move through the space and this is giving you this feeling that Daxiong was communicating. Everywhere you turn you could be arrested. There was danger at every corner.
And we’re able to achieve that because we’re moving through a 3D space but all of the settings that you’re seeing are coming from Daxiong’s pen and they’ve been draped onto the surfaces so that you have this kind of light immersive, but still kind of like a 2D illustrated comic field throughout.
SS: The film is obviously depicting a very severe violation of human rights. But when I was watching, it struck me that Falun Gong itself is something that even the Western world might be suspicious of. Was that something that that you were thinking about while you’re making the film? What were the guiding principles behind how you were going to frame this story?
JL: Thank you for that question. So there were moments where I was tempted to pull us out of the personal story and contextualize things for people. I mean, we do introduce a certain amount of context with just the archival news, archives of what the Western news reports were saying and what the Chinese state media was saying. And so people could situate themselves in that environment.
But what happened for me in the West, when I look at it, is Falun Gong was a news story. When the persecution first began, they’re like, “Well, they’re cracking down on like a Chinese yoga, what is going on here?” And this was news that people were protesting. And Tiananmen Square Square was very public. So that was news. And there was even a Pulitzer winning series from Ian Johnson at the Wall Street Journal, basically charting this persecution campaign against these people. That’s really early 2000s, I think, around the time of this stuff. But what had happened is that I think there’s a combination of factors.
One is that a certain element of the Chinese state media propaganda campaign was effective. Not in the sense that most western people believed what the state was saying about Falun Gong, but there was just so much of it that they’re like, “Well, maybe it’s not exactly as the Chinese government says it, but maybe they’re not perfect, either.”
And it just kind of muddied the waters to the point where it’s like, well, I’m not going to necessarily stick my neck out. Because it became an issue for Western journalists if they wanted to pursue this story. There’s a risk of a bureau being closed down. I’ve spoken with journalists, we interviewed a journalist at CNN for the film I mentioned was kind of done in the middle of this film. And they just talked about how challenging it was to actually sort of probe these allegations that the Chinese government was making, because there were also these threats that the journalists were facing. And very real concern of having the bureau closed down, facing criminal charges for being involved with Falun Gong just for pursuing this story.
So I think there’s this combination of sensitivity around it, a certain layer of propaganda. Propaganda doesn’t need to be irrefutable. It just needs to kind of muddy the waters so that people have these mixed feelings, and then they’re just not inclined to really dig into it, right? And so there’s those factors.
And I think another sort of human factor in all of this is the fact that there’s always some other tragedy in the world. So people kind of move on to something else, and something is forgotten. And so with Falun Gong, I feel like it’s sort of fallen off the radar for a couple of decades, and then only kind of reintroduced when it’s something that affects us in our bubble that we’re usually focused on.
So it’s like, there’s a newspaper that has covered things in a conservative spectrum and it was founded by people who come from this spiritual faith. So all of a sudden, it’s like that’s all we know about this faith now. That’s all we hear about this entire community. And I think it’s just unfortunate, but it’s common that we kind of hear one thing, and that becomes our summary of a group of people.
So I had thought about do we need to pull it out and give a bunch of context and all this type of stuff. But very likely, nobody in this film had ever even heard of people like Donald Trump, when this happened. That’s part of what people think about now. And I think it’s really important that people themselves, be able to kind of communicate what they’re about. And when thinking about it, this is what this film was about. There was a narrative about these people that doesn’t represent them. And this was all that people were able to hear. And it was underpinning this kind of persecution that they were facing, and an apathy from the general public that was looking the other way as they were being persecuted. All they wanted to do is speak out and kind of fracture that.
So for me, I’m just thinking these people deserve a chance, especially when they’re being treated unfairly. This is an idea that you see in Falun Gong. When people are being treated unfairly, they they deserve a chance to speak. And so I just tried to give an opportunity for people to situate themselves in the community and hear what these people themselves had to say about what they were doing, why they were doing it. And to allow people to hear different points of view as well within that. So for example, not everyone agreed that this was a great idea from the outset. Some people felt it was against their beliefs or against their faith, right?
So I wanted people to just get a sense for how people think within the community. You get a sense for what they’re about. And I think that that’s a really important contribution. If the goal is not to choose teams and set battle lines, but instead to build some kind of understanding. I felt that was best achieved by really letting these people sort of tell their own story and what this experience meant for them.
SS: This isn’t the most expected submission from Canada for the Oscars. I’m curious about the journey to becoming Canada’s official submission and what was your response to that announcement?
JL: Well, first off, there are so many remarkable filmmakers in Canada and a lot in French Canada, obviously, have come through the International Feature category. So I knew we had a chance, but I didn’t actually clear my schedule that day. I was in a recording session with an actress on our upcoming narrative video game when this came in. And so it was humbling and a huge honor. I mean, it’s the first time they’ve chosen a documentary, an animated film and the first Mandarin language film. And so we really feel like it’s not just this particular film, but we’re representing these areas, these industries and sort of sectors within the sort of filmmaking and creative space in Canada that really haven’t had the light shone on them in this way before.
So we’re proud of that. And we hope to draw attention to more of the talent that we have in these different areas in Canada. You know, I think it speaks to as well, the success that the film has been having. Because I mean, when the Pan-Canadian jury looks at this, they’re looking at the festival success that we’ve had, all of the things that are lined up for this film already in the fall, with more festivals and the theatrical and everything.
So they can see that people are resonating with this film on a wide basis. And so there’s that vote of confidence there too. So it kind of turned my world upside down for a couple of days, I have to say. It was like, “Wow, that really happened.” And then it’s like, “Well, you know what? What’s next?” Because we’re representing Canada, we’re competing hopefully in three categories here. And so we’re gonna do our very best for that next round for the shortlist and do our best to represent Canada.
SS: Has there been a lot of Chinese or Chinese diaspora people who have been able to see the film? How have they responded?
JL: Yeah, there have been and so it’s really interesting and quite moving for me, actually. This includes people in the expat community, Falun Gong practitioners, people who’ve kind of escaped China or have endured torture. We’ve had many moving stories from that capacity. In fact, a lot of them at our opening at Film Forum in New York. When I was overseas, in the Netherlands, there was a woman who knew the individuals in the film very well. And she was just crying uncontrollably. During the film, she said she felt like not only their story was reflected on screen, but she felt she was able to meet them again. And that really hit me.
So there’s these stories from survivors and other people in the community. But also, there are Chinese people who aren’t part of the Falun Gong community who we’re hearing from a lot. People now from Hong Kong, who really resonate with this story, because they see their own hometown changing and losing their freedoms, right? And they’re really sort of resonating with it from that level.
Like, we were doing a talk at an at an arts university a couple of weeks back. And a young art student who’s from Changchun city was just very emotional after the film. Then we did a Q&A, and she was just sharing how she had just come back from China and the very restrictive COVID policies they have now, where people are sent to lock down almost like on a whim. And she just felt she was constantly being kind of poked and prodded. She felt this kind of repression from the authorities there. And she was touched by the film. And she was wondering, where does this courage come from?
I think a lot of people are feeling it. Now things have become even more repressive for a lot of mainstream Chinese people. And they’re feeling this from the government, they understand more what communities like Falun Gong and other repressed communities have been going through. And they’re looking at this story and saying, “Where does this bravery, this strength come from?” And that, to me is touching, because it’s a conversation, right? It’s, something that people recognize for a long time.
This is what happens when it’s one group persecuted. You just kind of try and avoid being part of that group. And then, it’s somebody else and you see now like what’s happening with the Uyghurs in the Northwest, and they’re facing a lot of the same treatment that Falun Gong has been facing, right? And then you start to realize maybe it’s not these groups. Maybe it’s the regime that’s constantly persecuting its own people and just doesn’t respect their human rights and their dignity.
Unfortunately, a lot of Chinese people, I think, are feeling that now. So I see them resonating and it’s difficult, of course, to play the film in China. We actually have had people writing and requesting to organize screenings. And I just have to put safety as the paramount thing. But we will be cooperating with anti-censorship technology platforms to get the film into China so that people can stream it but in a completely anonymous way. Where we won’t be even interacting with people, because we just don’t want anyone to be in trouble for communicating with us and face any sort of repercussions as a result of it.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Eternal Spring is now playing in select theaters.