MOSF 17.2: “THE EXILES” – The Tank Man or the Tank?
Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 17.2: “THE EXILES” – The Tank Man or the Tank?
by Ravi Chandra January 24, 2022
Dedicated to the memory of our beloved teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, who transitioned on January 22, 2022, and inspired by THE EXILES, which I saw at Sundance this weekend, and which will have its festival run this year. As Thay said, there is no birth or death, just continuation. The struggle continues. (THE EXILES won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance! Find more about the film release on Instagram and Twitter.)
D. Thompson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“You either stand with the tank man or you stand with the tank.” – Wu’er Kaixi, June 4th Tiananmen Square Student Leader, in 2017
Ben Klein and Violet Columbus’ remarkable film, THE EXILES, has important lessons for Americans and the world as we navigate difficult, even treacherous waters, politically, culturally, and psychologically. Just as the Chinese government has wiped out memories and mention of Tiananmen Square in 1989, GOP leaders across the country are trying to wipe out serious consideration of slavery and racism in public education and politics. Indeed, legislators in Florida are attempting to suppress any lesson plan that would make students feel “uncomfortable,” using the tools of power to prune away any intellectual or emotional challenge to White Christian Male dominance, supremacy, or control. Knowledge of history provokes conscience, generates compassion, and compels action – and this is what abusive power, inescapably and incontrovertibly guilty, fears most. So it suppresses and distorts reality, and depends on the masses to transmit its toxicity through aggression, avoidance, and denial. The abusive seek to silence their own suffering by victimizing others and denying the consequences, both within and without. To stand with the tank man, to be the tank man, is to risk vulnerability, suffering, loss, and even death. But in a world where tanks prevail, our humanity will die.
Judith Hermann wrote in her seminal book, Trauma and Recovery, that all traumatized people are perpetually on alert for allies, bystanders, and betrayers, reiterating Wu’er’s point. “Are you with the tank man or the tank?” THE EXILES tracks the life and career of seminal documentarian Christine Choy, as she adamantly exemplifies the role of the ally – the one who opposes abuse and wrongdoing by drawing attention to it, thus inspiring radical conscience. She is probably best known for her Oscar-nominated 1987 film WHO KILLED VINCENT CHIN? (co-directed by Renee Tajima), but it seems that her American journey began as she navigated the culture shock between the gauzy perfection of the White Hollywood vision she saw onscreen as a youth in South Korea, the reality she encountered in New York City, and her own burgeoning conscience. She became a member of the Black Panther Party, and has seemingly never rested in her quest to bring injustice to light.
Christine Choy is a firecracker in time for Lunar New Year – a woman who upends all the stereotypes American culture feeds us about quiet, docile, submissive, non-expressive, bland Asians, particularly Asian women. Here she is, cigarette and vodka in hand, mouthing profanities. When asked, in January 2017, what should be done about the soon-to-be-inaugurated Donald Trump, she snaps back without hesitation, “kill him! Get a sniper.” She echoed the survival brain reflex that many of us had when faced with that extraordinary threat to our humanity and lives. This is a woman who stands with the tank man, and inspires us to do the same.
Try this at home.
While the film starts with this focus on Christine Choy as an activist filmmaker, it quickly segues to the events of June 4, 1989, and highlights the lives of three post-1989 exiles from China: Wu’er Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi, and Wan Runnan. THE EXILES completes the 30-year journey of many cannisters of footage shot post-1989. The footage and memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre brought tears to my eyes. I graduated college that May, and agonized over what I saw unfolding on my TV screen: students my age, perhaps thousands of them, gunned down by government troops as they pressed for reforms. Many who came of age in the 60s and 70s idealized China as an alternative to American imperialism. They along with all of us were disillusioned in 1989, and we are still struggling to find viable alternatives to authoritarianism at home and worldwide.
By 1989, I had protested many times on the Main Green of Brown University. If you aren’t taking action against injustice when you’re 18, what’s the point of youth as a foundation for life? I found my identity and voice as I raised my fist against racism, sexual harassment, homophobia, nuclear weapons, and war in those years. The idea that oppression would win was unthinkable, and I was ever ready to put myself on the line demanding change, as were an overwhelming majority of my Gen X peers at Brown and beyond.
And yet here we are, poised between hope and an unthinkable, catastrophic future, betrayed by those devoted to the patterns of fear, hatred, and greed, those threatened by change, threatened by diversity, threatened by the very hope that includes people like me.
One of Carl Jung’s patients had a dream. In the dream, the patient was “buried up to her neck in a pit of red hot embers, with just her head and a shoulder exposed. Jung stood right next to her in the dream. The patient cried out ‘Save me, Dr. Jung. Get me out of here!’ Jung placed his hand on her shoulder and gently but firmly pushed down, submerging her fully in the fiery embers, saying, ‘Not out, but through.’”
We are submerged in the fiery embers of our time. The three dissidents’ lives in exile have only been possible because of refuge in Taiwan, the U.S., and France. Yet even the places of refuge are becoming more precarious day-by-day. How will we get through? The disturbing possibility of a world without refuge looms, a world where our humanity itself is in hiding and exiled from safety and sunlight.
One regret I have about my 1989 self is that I was not as deeply connected a collaborator with others who shared my sentiment as I might have been. I had not even seen WHO KILLED VINCENT CHIN? The beauty of our present consciousness-expanding technological age is that our connections can be in relay with our values, each strengthening the other, even as they sometimes dispirit each other, failing to pass the baton. But we are in the fiery embers of a kind of hell, nonetheless, because we are racing into a space where we have not been welcomed, where we have been literally excluded. We are like exiles trying to return home, create home, expand the possibilities of home. As Nikole Hannah-Jones says (I paraphrase) “this country was not designed to be a multiracial democracy but the majority of Americans want a multiracial democracy.” This means we have to redesign America, from minds to laws, synapses to society, neurons to neighborhoods.
Choy poo-poos the idea of seeing a psychiatrist several times in the film, saying instead that she worked through her problems with her camera. “I didn’t need to see a shrink!” she declares. Thankfully, there are many pathways to dealing with suffering, because suffering is the human condition. We are always dealing with suffering.
I have felt lifted and even healed by the films I’ve seen, the books and poems I’ve read, and even the writing and filmmaking I’ve done. Art has been as vital to our cultural immune system as vaccines these last two years. My mentor once told me “therapy is art in the medium of relationship,” and this psychiatrist is grateful to be embedded in a world where art provides pathways to the goal of universal liberation.
In all art, memory becomes narrative, experience begets contemplation, and vision begins the process of transformation, on the screen, on the page, and in the therapy office.
May we be allies and artists in every medium to transform this great and fearful passage into a new beginning and a new life. Let’s stand with the tank man. We are going through something, and we need each other.