Three winters ago, TV producer Wenjing Ma watched an interview of Chinese human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng. In the video, Gao described the physical and mental torture he suffered after kidnapped by guards of the Chinese communist regime. Moved by the interview, Ma made it her goal to produce a documentary about the man known by many as the “conscience of China.”
Gao grew up in poverty. When he was young, his father died and his mother struggled to support her seven children on her own. As a boy, Gao was exposed to the harsh realities of survival, and with little help from the regime, he made it his life’s mission to help those who faced similar circumstances. His determination earned him the title of China’s leading human rights attorney.
Gao soon became the voice of the voiceless, often working on cases pro bono, representing victims of the regime’s persecution. But his outspoken nature wasn’t welcomed by China’s Communist Party. He was imprisoned, tortured, threatened, and after years of writing open letters to the top officials, Gao’s work became known internationally.
Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, Gao didn’t waver in his conviction that he must expose the injustice in China, which put him behind bars again and again. To this day, he remains in one of China’s northernmost prisons, where he is forbidden contact with his wife and two children.
An Important Story
Having previously heard about Gao’s work, Ma immediately started researching the attorney’s life and work. At the time, he was imprisoned, making it difficult to get to the bottom of the story. Ma used the resources at the TV station, NTD Television, where she freelanced at the time. NTD Television is the first Chinese-language television station independent of the Communist regime.
“This is a very important story, because any person who was born or who has lived in China, you understand clearly what it means to do something like Gao Zhisheng did,” Ma said.
Not only could the young producer relate to the struggles of repression as a Chinese dissident, Ma was also a practitioner of Falun Gong, a popular spiritual cultivation practice that originated in China, where it has been banned by the state.
Her respect for the attorney was reinforced when Gao took up the cases of many Falun Gong practitioners, some who were tortured physically and mentally, others who were killed to harvest their healthy organs. Even when being tortured in prison, Gao didn’t succumb to pressure to stop defending the practitioners, often putting the safety of his own family on the line.
Ma’s mission with the documentary, “Transcending Fear: The Story of Gao Zhisheng,” was to show people the attorney’s unwavering determination.
“What is striking for me is that whenever he had a chance he would pick himself up, and speak out loud again, and knowing that what he’s going to face is even harsher treatment,” Ma said. “It’s a good example for the world.”
When making the documentary, she not only lacked any financial resources, relying on commitment of colleagues at the television station, she also worked into the wee hours of the morning, after her children were in bed.
Putting together the story also wasn’t easy. Ma got in touch with Gao’s wife and two children who found refuge in the U.S. and who agreed to be interviewed. She also used publicly available footage of interview from other human rights attorneys in China who spoke about the cause.
Stringing the story together had its own challenges, since westerners often have a misunderstanding of the situation in China, as mainstream media reports focus on main cities like Shanghai and Beijing, touting their economic success. According to Ma, the real situation in China is a society scared to speak badly of the party, even behind closed doors. The real situation is best represented by Gao’s case, she said.
With her film, Ma is not only trying to document the story of a human rights hero, she is also trying to add to the effort that would rescue Gao, who is said to be still locked up in the desolate woods of north-western China. Earlier this year one of his brother’s was allowed to visit the prison but could not relay any information to Gao’s family.
“I want people to understand the deep sadness of today’s China but I don’t want them to feel desperate or helpless,” Ma said.
“Transcending Fear” can be viewed as a live stream or DVD through TranscendingFearFilm.com