In a documentary filmmaking course, my professor always said that documentarians are always obscure compared to their counterparts in narrative filmmaking. Ask a person if they know a director and they will give you familiar names like Scorsese, Tarantino, Nolan, and many others known for their narrative films. Out of the names I’ve mentioned, Scorsese is the only one that has made documentary films, but even then it’s not what he’s known for.
Christine Choy doesn’t hold the same level of fame as these men, but she is a highly respected filmmaker in her own right. Her passion for social justice produced dozens of thought-provoking documentaries that garnered well-deserved attention. Choy earned an Oscar nomination for Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a film that explores the unfairness of the American justice system when it comes to the killing of a person of color perpetrated by a white man.
As Choy continues to produce more work, she also teaches filmmaking in one of the most prestigious film schools in the world, New York University. In The Exiles, directors Ben Klein and Violet Columbus, the daughter of director and producer of this film Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire), decide to take on their former film professor as the main subject of the documentary. Introducing Choy, Klein and Columbus show a montage of clips of interviews and B-roll to show us who she is in a mixture of digital, 16mm, and Super 8mm film. “How do I describe myself? Fuck you, you can describe me!” she proclaims to the interviewer. As we learn more about who Choy is as a person, filmmaker, and activist, we are presented with such a rumbustious woman. Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Joker), who appears to introduce his former professor, directly addresses the filmmakers behind the camera that it isn’t an accurate portrayal if they didn’t encapsulate Choy’s “Tasmanian devil energy.”
Indeed, this is what makes Christine Choy an interesting subject for a documentary: her body of work, wild random stories, and her personality. But as Klein and Columbus learn more about their mentor, they discover an unfinished film from nearly thirty years ago. The duo found an opportunity to make a film within a film and see Choy’s process as a creative through the lens of this unfinished project. In this project, Choy followed the three leaders of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement who fled Mainland China following the June 4th massacre: charming student leader Wu’er Kaixi, calculating academic Yan Jiaqi, and prominent businessman Wan Runnan. But because of financial restraints, Choy had to abandon the project.
The documentary now approached three threads: Choy and her process, her archival footage of the three dissidents, and her reflection on the past. It felt unfocused as the filmmakers gave all three its screentime exploring the themes of patriotism, revisionist history, and having no place to call home. One might have problems with the fact that non-Chinese filmmakers, especially white Americans like Klein and Columbus, are tackling something so sensitive as the Tiananmen Square events, but it is evident that they are guided by their mentor Choy throughout the process.
Choy knew that her unfinished film needs a new lifeline. There is a sense of urgency to let the new generation see what happened at Tiananmen and what these men fought for. Choy beautifully captures the layers of these men who are striving for a better life in a country that banished them. Klein and Columbus engagingly tie everything together with a conclusion of the men still living in exile as they dreamed of the home that they never returned to, with Choy realizing from the start that she will never return to China as well and coming to terms with that.
The Exiles captures the longing for one’s homeland and the anxieties of the past as it is slowly fading away from the collective consciousness. Having an interesting figure at the center of it all makes it a more compelling watch. It could’ve fallen into a boring documentary but with Christine Choy as your subject, that’s hard to do.
‘The Exiles’ won the Sundance U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary film.