Total Trust |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Jialing Zhang, Netherlands/Germany, 2023, 97 mins

Cast: Chen Zijuan, Li Wenzu, Sophia Huang Xueqin

Review by Ben Thomas

Total Trust, directed by Chinese filmmaker Jialing Zhang, is a well-constructed documentary that covers a range of personal and political issues relating to the Chinese firewall and surveillance state.

It is stark in its depiction of grid systems, police violence, physical barricades and detainment camps. The film, at its time of release, isn’t necessarily revelatory, it doesn’t bring an entirely new thesis to the table, but it excels in its collation of information and confirmation of existing suspicions about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): namely, its dealings with ‘dissident’ lawyers and human rights activists. Additionally, the film’s concerted focus on the children of the detainees, particularly on their disrupted upbringing and education, is a strong directorial decision that pays dividends in bringing a fresh dimension to the issues discussed.

In Total Trust we are introduced to a few key individuals: Chen Zijuan, who has not seen her husband, human rights lawyer Chang Weipang since he was arrested in January 2020 and charged with “subversion of state power”, and her young son Tutu; Li Wenzu and her son Quanquan, who were recently been reunited with her lawyer husband Wang Quanzhang; Sophia Huang Xueqin, an independent journalist and #MeToo activist. These individuals provide the footholds into a wider interrogation of human rights, augmented reality, surveillance and censorship in China. The production of the film is worth noting. As the director Jialing Zhang is exiled from China and based in the U.S.A, the film was directed remotely, with small film crews in China conducting the filming.

The film does an effective job of establishing the context of an ever-expanding surveillance state in China. In the country, technological innovations are used to repress and restrict the population’s movements and motivations. It is a camera society, with facial recognition, social credit and electronic medical passes. The film captures the dire situation of human rights in China and, indeed, the tensions within the country itself regarding correct legal practise and exercise of political power. The film does well to depict the diversity of Chinese perspectives, including those loyal to the state, while focusing on the families of Chang and Wang, who have been punished for their conviction and outspokenness against the CCP. Though, at the beginning of the film, we touch on the aims and outlooks of the CCP—the way it promotes its own nationalistic and economic prowess—more context on the mechanisms of government and decision-making might have added something more to the discussions. The political forces encircling the protagonists in the film always feel a little vague.

Total Trust excels in its efforts to empathise with the children of the detained lawyers, Tutu and Quanquan. The two boys, growing up in disruptive and confusing situations, with one of them having to change schools every semester, don’t quite have the language to explain

what’s happening to them. They simmer and act out: slamming doors on authorities and swinging big sticks at CCTV cameras pointed at their homes; at one point, Tutu hugs a cardboard cutout of his missing dad. We are introduced to a world in which young children must be taught about freedom from an early age and be made aware of human rights violations, or face being subsumed by the state. Total Trust is predominantly a family-centred film, focusing on the physical bonds increasingly torn apart by the state. What lurks in the background of the film is the individualisation of all of Chinese society, the engrained competitiveness of social life in the country that is tearing apart every possible bond, familial or otherwise.

Total Trust is a necessary and informed piece of work that effectively brings together a handful of relevant stories of CCP repression. At times, it can feel a little bit like retracing steps, the film took years to edit and in such a fast-changing situation, especially when thinking about technological innovations, the journalistic elements can feel slightly outdated. This being said, the interviews are candid and the footage is surprisingly intimate given the risk and danger of filming. The film offers no consolations, some of those highlighted remain in prison and have little hope for a rapid solution.

Total Trust, directed by Jialing Zhang, had its UK premiere last Thursday at Sheffield Documentary Festival.

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