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The Confucius Institute (CI) initiative is a multi-billion dollar Chinese language program found in over 1,500 universities and schools across the world. As new Institutes open at a rate of one every week or two, a global controversy grows at academic institutions around the world as scholars, parents and others question the program’s political influence and purpose.

When Canada’s largest school board is slated to open the world’s largest Confucius Institute, the school trustees find themselves embroiled in this controversy. Joined by a former instructor, hundreds of disgruntled parents launch a campaign to have the institute closed and are confronted by supporters.

Doris Liu

Doris Liu

Into this controversy steps filmmaker Doris Liu and the result is her award winning documentary In the Name of Confucius

Five Questions With spoke with Liu about the challenges she faced in making the film which has its Ottawa premiere at the One World Film Festival on Saturday September 30, 2017.

How did you get in involved in making this film?

As a Chinese-Canadian journalist, I’ve spent years covering news stories related to China and the Chinese diaspora in the Greater Toronto area. In early 2013, I read a Globe and Mail article about McMaster University closing down its Confucius Institute because of the discriminatory hiring policies against which a former instructor, Sonia Zhao, had filed a complaint. The story caught my eye right away as it related to the topics I was interested in: Chinese-Canadians, Canada-China relations, and education – I myself was a university teacher back in China and I also studied education after my immigration.

At first, I didn’t know much about the Confucius Institute (CI) although I heard of it long ago and knew it teaches Chinese language. I did a quick Google search and found lots of concerns and criticisms about the institutes, not only in Canada.

I was shocked by the hidden truth behind a seemingly benign institute named after an ancient Chinese philosopher. I thought it would make a good documentary story to find out what the Confucius Institute was all about starting from Sonia’s personal experiences. Thus I started a journey as a filmmaker.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making your film?

Filmmaking is not an easy job and it is even more so for a first time filmmaker.

Prior to making In the Name of Confucius, my only experience related to video was the few years working as a TV reporter. I wasn’t sure how to make a film. I started by watching documentaries, reading books, and attending workshops. I sought help from a couple documentary filmmakers I knew and through one of them I found a mentor, Alan Mendelsohn, who guided, coached, and walked me through the process of making a documentary film.

Funds could be a big challenge to any filmmaker. Although I was lucky to get some financial support from the Canada Media Fund, it was about a quarter of what a normal one-hour doc would cost to make. I had to beg friends for help and do as much as I could myself.

For example, I didn’t spend a penny on locations or actors for the reenactments. I paid the DOV a hourly rate instead of a day rate. All interviews were transcribed and translated either by friends with insanely low compensation or by myself. I did a lot of the assistant editing and locked the picture myself. There was really a great deal of hard work and dedication that went into the film. Also because of the limited budget, the film wasn’t able to expand to other countries where there were also incidents about the Confucius Institutes.

Mass protest at TDSB

Many protest CI’s political influence and purpose.

On top of all these challenges, the greatest one in making this film was getting the perspectives of CI supporters or third parties, given the highly controversial nature of the issue. I approached the CIs in a very neutral way and got access to three CI host schools. But soon after I started to ask probing questions, they became reluctant to share and stopped the interviews eventually. One university, after my first day interview, asked me to sign a media consent form that gave them the right to prescreen and rescind interview content that they deemed inappropriate. When I refused to sign, they canceled my interview on the second day.

Governments were not willing to participate in the film. Both Ontarian and BC governments turned down my interview requests. The BC Ministry of Education called to tell me that they had no authority to regulate the Confucius Institute hosted by the Coquitlam School District, citing the BC School Act. The Ontarian Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities responded with an email that boasted the strong relationship between the province and China. Neither of them commented on the discrimination that caused the closure of the McMaster CI.

There are scenes in the film where the interview subjects end the interview and walk out on you in particular the Coquitlam School District officials and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). Could you tell me about these interviews and how you dealt with them?

Before the interviews with the Coquitlam BC school officials and Toronto District School Board (TDSB), I had already had my scheduled second day interviews cancelled by Brock University after the first day of filming and interview (Brock didn’t end up in the film). So I had prepared to face difficult situations and knew that I had only one chance at Coquitlam and TDSB. In both cases, I requested to film the B-roll before doing the interviews.

At Coquitlam, I had interviewed the Chinese CI director before interviewing the two Canadian officials. I asked her what would be her response if her adult students in weekend classes asked about topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. She said she would avoid such topics.I didn’t ask her any follow up questions because I knew that might alert the Coquitlam officials who I was about to interview.

The interview with the two Canadian officials was quite long. I asked many detailed questions about their CI operation and their relationship with China. I gave them a break before I started asking the difficult questions and once I started I pressed them for responses to criticisms. I expected them to be unhappy but didn’t expect them to stop and walk away from the interview. I felt sorry for them but I was clear I wouldn’t give them back their release forms.

The Chinese director was filming my interview from behind my back and told me she would report any media presence to Hanban, the Confucius Institute Headquarters that oversees all CIs. Before the showdown, the Chinese director had already taken back her release form during the interview break, using an excuse that she wanted to take a look of her release. She said she wasn’t comfortable to answer my question about the sensitive topic.

After Coquitlam, I wasn’t able to get access to any other operating CIs in Ontario or BC. It may or may not be a consequence of the Coquitlam interviews but I suspected that the Chinese government warned the CIs not to participate in my film.

CI removal team

The situation at the TDSB was slightly different, as its CI hadn’t physically opened yet. I was allowed to film the inauguration party and then I did the interview with the chair Chris Bolton. I decided to bring a concerned parent to the interview and gave her a chance to ask questions to the chair. I wanted to save the opportunity for the parent, so I didn’t press him too hard. But then when the parent brought up her own education experiences back in China, the chair stopped and walked away from his office. The chair resigned two weeks after my interview.

I had to asked my cameramen friends to film both interviews because the other cameraman wasn’t comfortable to film difficult situations when I told him what could happen.

Can you tell us why your decided to use re-enactments in your film?

Re-enactments are widely used by documentarians to tell stories of what previously happened. There are different ways and approaches of re-enactments. I never hesitated to tell Sonia Zhao’s past story through re-enactments because her personal story was touching and I wanted to showcase it.


Sonia Zhao, a former CI instructor

Another reason I used re-enactments rather than archive images was a practical consideration. Sonia’s parents are still in China under the authority’s watch, especially her mother who had been put into prison for two years because of her belief in Falun Gong, a banned and brutally persecuted Qigong exercise and meditation. When reports came out that McMaster closed the CI due to Sonia’s human rights complaint, her mother was visited and warned by police. It would have been too risky for her mother’s safety to even use a photo of her in my film.

What do you want the viewer to take away after viewing your film?

Just like I didn’t know what Confucius Institutes (CI) were all about at first, I believe many people don’t know about CI either or even haven’t heard of it, let alone the controversies surrounding it. I hope that my film will provide audiences with information and various views of CIs, and raise the awareness of this issue. More broadly, I hope my film could inspire people to think about how we interact with China when it starts to play a bigger role in our society and our life.

For people who support the CIs, and for universities and schools that host Confucius Institutes or Classrooms on campus, or wish to pursuit the CI, I hope my film could provide them with another perspective, and help them re-consider their partnership with China by reflecting their commitments to principles and values such as academic integrity, freedom of speech, human rights codes, national security, etc.

People in Spain and South Africa are actually using my film to launch their anti-CI campaigns. I hope my film can be a tool to educate and inspire people and to bring positive changes.

CI film poster_10x6_RGB (1)A

Doris Liu’s passion is to tell compelling China/Chinese related stories that resonate in Canadian society and the West. She is currently working on a heart-wrenching story of a young Chinese-American woman’s 18-year-long fight for the freedom of her father, a prominent former prisoner of conscience who is now still at the hands of the Chinese government.

In the Name of Confucius is one of the many great Canadian documentaries at the 28th annual One World Film Festival, taking place at Saint Paul University from September 28th to October 1st 2017. The film screens on Saturday September 30th at 3:30PM along with the short A Cello in the Subway followed by a Panel Discussion with director Doris Liu and guest speakers David Kilgour and Michel Juneau-Katsuya.

Addition information about the film and the Confucius Institute (CI) initiative can be found on the film’s website at inthenameofconfuciusmovie.com

All photos courtesy of “In the Name of Confucius Documentary”.

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