‘Total Trust’ Director Jialing Zhang Talks First Big Film About Chinese State Surveillance (EXCLUSIVE)

Documentary filmmaker Jialing Zhang, who was nominated for an Emmy for “One Child Nation,” spoke with Variety about his latest film, “Total Trust,” which is showing at CPH:DOX’s main competition, Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Festival.

It tells the chilling story of three women and their families fighting for their human rights in China, where state control is ubiquitous thanks to high-tech surveillance such as facial recognition, big data analytics and point systems that mean citizens win. or lose points depending on your behavior.

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Zhang’s intimate footage offers unprecedented access to the impact of this total control system on the protagonists’ everyday lives.

“We didn’t just want to make a film about surveillance, but about the people who live in this kind of society. We wanted to achieve a certain emotional depth and complexity – trying to understand the anger, the horror, but also the hope, through the resilience of our characters who continue to fight for human rights, freedom and security, for themselves and their loved ones. , and have really been transformed by the situation they find themselves in,” she says.

Zhang, who lives in the United States and is unable to return to China, where he is listed in police records after co-directing “One Child Nation” with Nanfu Wang in 2016, directed the entire film remotely. She already gained experience working remotely due to travel restrictions by co-producing Wang’s 2020 “In the Same Breath” about the COVID-19 outbreak in China.

For “Total Trust”, she worked with local activists on the ground. They received remote training on how to film by Zhang and her team in the United States. Strict communication protocols were implemented, including the use of encrypted messages that disappeared after 24 hours, nicknames, and SIM free phones that could not be tracked.

Asked about the film’s impact on the protagonists’ lives, Zhang said they all decided it was their responsibility to participate to raise awareness of their individual cases – the husband of one of the women is a human rights lawyer who has been imprisoned since the beginning of 2020, and another is a journalist speaking out against Xi Jinping’s rule – but also about a surveillance system that is not just a Chinese problem.

“That’s something we hope to convey with this film as well: it’s not just about China. We want audiences to look to their own countries. This film is about the potential danger of technology in the hands of corporations and uncontrolled power.

“It’s about how technology can be used for the suppression of human rights and for social control – and Western governments are increasingly using data to monitor their own citizens,” she says, citing recent concerns in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. US court overturning Roe v. Wade that data collected from period tracking apps could be used to penalize women seeking an abortion.

The film not only addresses the issue of state surveillance, but also the unspoken threat of self-censorship as a result of generations of state control.

“The police live in your mind,” says Zhang, “because this heightened surveillance is everywhere – on your phone, your computer, when you text your family. You always think twice before posting something on WeChat. Having your account blocked causes a lot of inconvenience because you use it for everything – from communicating to making payments.”

“Total Trust” also features several government propaganda film clips, which Zhang describes as increasingly well crafted. “The storytelling is so good, it’s not just black and white – most of the time you don’t realize you’re being brainwashed, it’s much more sophisticated and nuanced than before.”

The film’s title itself is directly inspired by a government official’s quote stating that public trust in the government reached 98% at the height of the pandemic.

“98%, that’s almost complete confidence,” smiles Zhang. “What about the remaining 2%? It’s so ironic – it’s not true. Because of propaganda and censorship, we don’t hear their voices.

“In China, they don’t exist online – their existence has been erased – they don’t appear in the media, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There are many young people who think critically and who have access to information,” says Zhang.

“Total Trust” is produced by German Filmtank, in co-production with Witfilm, Interactive Media Foundation, ZDF/ARTE and NTR, in association with BBC Storyville and SVT. It is funded by Eurimages, MOIN Film Fund Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein, MFG Baden-Württemberg, Netherlands Film Fund and CoBo Fund, with support from Chicken & Egg Pictures.

Cinephil is handling worldwide sales.

The film will have its world premiere at CPH:DOX on March 21. The festival takes place in Copenhagen until March 26.

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