Everything I’ve described happens to be mere background, against which the disturbing plot of Ask No Questions plays out. In 2001, several purported Falun Gong practitioners set themselves aflame in the middle of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This act of self-immolation – accidentally caught on tape by CNN journalist Lisa Weaver – led to Falun Gong being labeled an “evil cult” by the government, the media, and consequently, the people. It became a cautionary tale, a “part of the school curriculum,” broadcast in squares on the largest screens possible to provoke hatred against Falun Gong. But Jason Loftus – the film’s co-director, co-writer, narrator, and longtime Falun Gong practitioner – just couldn’t make sense of the tragedy.
And so we follow Jason’s tremendously compelling investigation. He meets Ruichang Chen – a charismatic, eloquent, soft-spoken gentleman – and talks to him about his days standing up against the regime. He interviews Lisa Weaver, scrutinizes the self-immolation footage from every angle, receives subliminal threats from the Chinese government – and as he does, the puzzle pieces start to fit together. A banned book titled Yellow Peril, which came out a decade prior to the traumatic protest, eerily functions as a blueprint for self-immolation staged by the government. The footage of the event, and of how the local news reported it after, reveals clear inconsistencies. Some of the most fascinating moments come during a surgeon’s analysis of the burn victims’ footage in the stage-like hospital room (That misplaced teddy bear! The poor girl’s hand!)
“…a tantalizing, real-life thriller that couldn’t be more surreal if it were fiction.”
Jason and Eric Pedicelli always make sure to reiterate that nothing here can be proven as a fact. “It’s difficult to imagine a world in which a government could devise a self-immolation scheme to frame a religious group,” Jason says. “But it was also difficult to imagine soldiers opening fire on unarmed students who were appealing for democracy.” As the filmmakers unravel layer after layer of potential conspiracies, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine that there’s any fabrication in their expose of a fabricated incident.
Ask No Questions begs us to question everything, to read between the lines. A few cunningly-placed cameras, a couple of threats, and some psychologically unstable recruits – and voila! – a whole new reality may be formed (in that sense, it’s like a real-life version of Barry Levinson’s satire Wag the Dog). The doc works on several levels: as an impassioned outcry against dictatorship and religious intolerance; as a scathing critique of corrupt media (allusions to our own FOX News are inescapable); as an ode to a man who maintained stoicism and kept his faith through the most arduous times; but most of all, as a tantalizing, deeply unsettling, real-life thriller that couldn’t be more surreal if it were fiction.
Ask No Questions screened at the Slamdance Film Festival.
"…The filmmakers do ask questions, which they know have no definitive answer."