“The Exiles” Uncovers the Banished Students of Tiananmen

Director Ben Klein, film subject Christine Choy, and director Violet Columbus attend the Q&A at the virtual premiere of The Exiles.

By Vanessa Zimmer

A baby-faced, 21-year-old Wu’er Kaixi faces the camera in 1989 in New York’s Battery Park and boldly criticizes the autocratic government of his homeland China, which sent troops and tanks to Tiananmen Square to shut down a massive pro-democratic student protest.

Thirty years later and still in exile from his country, Kaixi spoke in the U.S. Capitol about his disappointment in the American government’s response to what has come to be called the Tiananmen Square massacre. “It gives me no pleasure to say now: ‘I told you so,’ ” he said of the massacre, China’s denial of the event, and the reported civil rights abuses that have followed.

“You betrayed us,” he said, and added a call for the U.S. government to stand up to the wrongs of the Chinese government to “make our sacrifice worthwhile.”

Kaixi’s story is among those told in The Exiles, named Friday as winner of the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The film, a debut feature directed by Ben Klein and Violet Columbus, benefits from the contributions of the colorful and outspoken documentarian Christine Choy, who is said to have taught her film classes with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of vodka in the other. The tiny Chinese/Korean woman had 50 roles of film of Kaixi and other exiles in storage when Klein and Columbus approached her about shooting a film.

The two originally proposed a documentary about her and her work (which includes co-directing the Oscar-nominated Who Killed Vincent Chin?), but once she revealed the historical footage, the project evolved into one with its lens squarely on the exiles of Tiananmen. The three took the footage to Taiwan, Maryland, and Paris to discuss exiles’ lives following their banishment.

As for Kaixi, he lives in Taipei, Taiwan, and he does love his life there. He has spent as many years now in Taiwan as in China, and he hasn’t seen his family for 28 years. He is still an exile and, because of him, his parents cannot receive a passport to visit. “I escaped from a massacre,” he still marvels. “How did I do it?”