A Chinese filmmaker points his camera at the darkest moments in Communist Party history

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Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter and this is The World. In China, the daughter of a former high level official made some news this month. She offered a public apology for the role she played in a murder that happened nearly half a century ago. Back then, China was in the midst of its cultural revolution. If this is starting to sound familiar, you might've heard a recent report by The World's Matthew Bell about another public apology in China. Matthew is here in the studio with me. Matthew, if you would, remind us what's going on here.

Matthew Bell: This is the latest, Aaron, in a string people who've come out to apologize for taking part in the chaos of the cultural revolution, for what they did, for their actions. The cultural revolution began in 1966. It went on for 10 years and millions of people suffered across China. Nearly 2 million people are thought to have died from political violence in the country. Plenty of Chinese people of a certain age lived through those events and they remembered what happened.

Schachter: As we said, you did a story on this last month. Why are we talking about it again?

Bell: It's interesting as this case is yet another person with an important family background, who's come out and apologized for her behavior. This was the daughter of a former top Chinese general. She was also a former Red Guard herself. Those were the revolutionary youth brigades who really worshipped chairman Mao like a god. The murder that she was apologizing for is considered to be one of the first of many political killings by Red guard groups. This one happened in the Summer of 1968 at one of Beijing's elite high schools. The victim was the school's deputy principal. She was hauled out in front of a crowd and denounced and beaten bloodied and then left to die.

Schachter: So more and more people are apologizing, which seems like a good thing from the outside, yet it's pretty controversial. Why is that?

Bell: It's because that the Chinese government has made it pretty clear that they don't want people looking too closely at its mistakes of the recent past. Sure enough, when this story came out, China's internet censors moved pretty quickly to quash the story and prevent it from going viral. What's also fascinating, Aaron, about this particular case is that the murder was the subject of a documentary film that's called "Though I am Gone." It was made by a Chinese filmmaker named Hu Jie. When I was in China late last year, I had a chance to meet with Hu and to watch the film.

Bell: An official radio broadcast from the start of the cultural revolution plays over archival video footage. There are scenes of mass rallies, big political posters and of course, chairman Mao. It helped set the historical context of "Though I am Gone," but the most powerful parts of the film by far come when filmmaker Hu Jie interviews the murder victim's widower on camera.

Bell: The filmmaker asks the man, a photographer himself, "It must've been traumatic for you to take pictures of your wife's body." "Definitely," he says, "but I was determined," he goes on to say, "to record the truth of history." The film was devastating in its details. The 48-year-old deputy principal knew she was in danger, but she refused to flee Beijing because she did nothing wrong. Eventually schoolgirls with the Red Guard set upon her with homemade weapons, including spiked clubs. Her widower got the news with a phone call that evening. So he gathered his 4 young children and his camera to go retrieve his wife's body from the hospital.

Bell: The only time the widower breaks down in front of the camera is when he talks about being at home with his daughters and looking out the window. This is long after she's gone, but the family still finds itself waiting for the murdered woman, impossibly, to come home at last. It's the kind of simple human moment that makes Hu Jie's film so powerful. He's done it again and again by capturing personal stories of horror and suffering from China's recent history.

Bell: Hu welcomed me into his family's apartment in Nanjing with a strong handshake and some green tea. He's not overly tall, his build matches his square, bearded jaw, and his eyes are warm and serious at the same time.

Bell: Hu joined the army in 1977. He worked as a mechanic. Later, he got into the propaganda business. That led him to a civilian job with the state run news agency where Hu had access to a video camera. In his spare time, he kept the camera rolling, and eventually, that got him fired.

Bell: In China, Hu told me, there aren't many films that tell the truth. So for the last 20 years he's been on sort of a personal mission to rectify the situation. Hu has focused much of his energy on the period of Communist party history from the late 1950's through the 1970's. Denunciations, purges, famine and political violence characterized those years.

Bell: Hu Jie's 2009 film, "East wind State Farm" profiles this woman, along with a handful of other survivors from a farm labor camp in rural China. These were Communist party members who were purged in the late 1950's. Nearly 200 people died at this single location. Those who lived spent more than 20 years in the camp and eventually they got an official pardon. The government admitted that they were wrongfully accused of being bad Communists. In the words of one of Hu's interviewees, "it was a historical joke." I asked Hu if he's taken much heat from Chinese authorities because his films so directly challenge the official history.

Bell: "China has passed through the stage of totalitarianism," Hu said. "There are many more opportunities today. I never think of the risk," Hu said, "and don't bother worrying what might happen to me later on." Hu told me he has been visited many times by state security agents, "but they're always polite," he said, "and nothing more serious has come from the visits." So in a sense, the government tolerates Hu's film work, but of course they don't make it easy for people to see it in China. Hu's films have been shown at independent film festivals in China, but not in theaters or on television, and attempts to distribute them online have been blocked.

Karin Chien is with dGenerate Films, an American company that distributes Chinese titles online, including 2 of Hu's films.

Karin Chien: For Hu specifically, I think the difficulty - I would pinpoint it to his topics of his documentary films. It's dangerous to look at the past and I don't think it's a question of whether Chinese audiences want it or not. I think it comes down to control of information, control of the grand narrative.

Bell: Many stories will never be told. Hu said that only a handful of people in China are making independent historical films, and in his own experience, most people he approaches do not agree to speak with him. People are just too nervous about talking on camera and taking the risk of getting into trouble. But the ones who do tell their stories, Hu said, "these people are real heroes."

Bell: "They suffered through so much horror and violence," Hu said, "and then they recounted those experiences honestly and calmly." Hu explained that if he never made these documentaries, no one would know how these individuals lived through such tragedy with resourcefulness and energy and a sense of human dignity. Hu said he finds these personal stories inspiring and that others will too. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell, Nanjing.

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