Life lessons on screen

“The moment I knew I wanted to make films for the rest of my life, was when I learned how to edit on a computer…

…And I put what was in my head on the screen. The first time I saw what was in my head on the screen, I cried,” says Jeff Daniels, a Melbourne-based filmmaker and high school teacher.

Throughout the past decade, the 31-year-old has pursued this love for film in various ways, working as a researcher and assistant editor at New York production houses and teaching video production at a Melbourne high school, along with history.

At this year’s Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), Daniels presented his first full-length documentary, 10 Conditions of Love, which profiled Uighur human rights activist and prominent businesswoman — once the wealthiest entrepreneur in China — Rebiya Kadeer and explored her personal sacrifices throughout her relentless fight for her people’s autonomy, gaining the label of “terrorist-separatist” from the Chinese government.

The documentary is the culmination of a seven-year US$250,000 process, set in motion when Daniels first heard about the Uighur people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that had lived in the far west of China for more than 1,000 years, from a friend teaching English in Beijing.

The native New Yorker said his subsequent research into the Uighur challenged his perspective on 9/11. Several people he knew had died in the Twin Towers and at the time it was mentioned that Osama Bin Laden might be in China, which he accepted without question, eager to assign blame.

“I eventually understood that the Chinese government was persecuting the Uighur, their religious practices, their political freedoms, in the name of a global war on terror. And I felt manipulated. I didn’t want other people to be as misinformed.”

So began his mission to tell the Uighur’s story, without any idea of anyone would ever see the final product, using his teacher’s salary to fund the bulk of the project, as broadcasters were wary of a first-time director and the controversial topic.

Four years into making the film, after gaining the trust of Uighur exiles in New York, he was introduced to Kadeer.

“It was then that I realized that I didn’t just have a news story, a five-minute piece for CNN, I had a film, and it was about Rebiya… she embodied her people’s struggle with her own history,” he says.

Although he had found his star, the challenges continued, especially with the language barrier.

Kadeer, who was only released from prison three years ago, is still learning English and many Uighur translators felt too intimated to interpret their icon’s words, so he’s grateful to her American colleagues and daughter Rey “who speaks perfect English”.

Daniels’ perseverance has paid off, as his film was selected for this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). The film is an Australian production.

MIFF’s announcement came shortly after the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, which was instigated by 1,000 Uighurs and led to 200 deaths, most reportedly Han Chinese.

The Chinese government called on the festival to ban the film, describing Kadeer, the president of the World Uighur Congress (WUC) and the Uighur American Association, as their “Osama bin Laden”.

MIFF’s organizers declined, and received death threats, by email, phone and fax. In a single day, 75,000 Chinese citizens hacked into MIFF’s website, leading to the festival losing AUS$60,000 in online ticket sales, as every film had been marked as “sold out”.

Daniels assumes he won’t be able to return to China, but stills hopes people in China will be able to view his film and “see a point of a view that the government does not want them to see”.

To this end, he is working on a Mandarin version of the film.

He was surprised that considering the influence China has over Indonesia, JiFFest’s screening of 10 Conditions of Love didn’t seem problematic. Still, he was on the verge of pulling out, following the ban of fellow Australian production Balibo.

“I called the director about this – Bob Connolly – and spoke to him about it. And after really thinking about it, I just felt it was more appropriate for me to show the people in Indonesia, a story about a strong Muslim woman standing up to her government… to fight for her people’s basic human rights, including freedom of speech.”

Aside from her human rights work, 10 Conditions of Love considers Kadeer as a wife and a mother, roles that have often conflicted with the former.

The title refers to Kadeer’s 10 conditions for remarriage, after her first husband divorced her in favor of a promotion and allegiance to the Communist Party.

Her conditions were: “He must be moral; he must have a literature degree; there must be two years’ age difference; it must be love at first sight; he must have gone to prison for his beliefs; we must truly love each other; loyalty; we must fight for the same goal; and he must be willing to sacrifice himself for the good of our people.”

“Love should be unconditional… but because of the position Rebiya was put in, she had to have these conditions in order to love, and I felt that story… and the title… really said a lot about what Rebiya had been through, what her people were going through,” Daniels says.

Kadeer found these qualities in her second husband Sidik Rouzi, an associate professor and human rights activist who had in fact had been the one to convince Kadeer that it was possible to do more for one’s people. Their love story offers several of the film’s standout moments, from Kadeer charismatically describing how they met, to Rouzi shedding tears when recalling his wife’s 6-year imprisonment.

The film is further characterized by Kadeer’s conflict with her daughter Rey, who, due to her mother’s eventful life, had to raise her 11 siblings.

Rey resents the high price the family has had to pay, particularly with the 2006 and 2007 imprisonment of her two younger brothers, for their involvement in “secessionist activities”, which many see as punishment for Kadeer’s crusade.

“It’s a battle that you want fought, but by somebody else… it was very difficult for Rey,” he says.

Daniels sees his two occupations – filmmaking and teaching – as comparable and overlapping, and tries to make history topics personal, enlivening them with multimedia.

He wants to be able to continue teaching, but is open to what the future holds.

“I’m very happy at the moment because someone asked me, where do you see yourself in 15 years? And I see myself exactly where I am now.”

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