“I feel China has become this major superpower and these stories are not being told, especially
not in the US.” So says Chicago-based documentary filmmaker Brent Huffman regarding his latest film for VICE News. The short centers on the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown of Uyghur Muslims, deemed “genocide” by the U.S., and the efforts of one activist in Pakistan to rescue persecuted Muslims by way of an incredibly dangerous underground railroad. Please watch the film here, followed by SCREEN’s exclusive conversation with Huffman:
Why is this film important to an American audience? “The U.S. used to be a strategic partner and strong ally with Pakistan,” director Brent Huffman explained to SCREEN. “Though in the last decade, that relationship has dramatically weakened. While the U.S. has turned its attention on itself, China has been busy recreating a massive new silk road pumping over four trillion dollars into new economic relationships with in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) represents the first leg of this ambitious project. This
documentary for VICE shows where new alliances are happening and the human rights violations and violence that are arising from this new situation.”
From SXSW to Netflix to VICE
Huffman, who is also a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, was most recently in the spotlight with the SXSW Grand Jury Prize winning documentary FINDING YINGYING, which he helped produce for director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, who was actually his student at Medill. FINDING YINGYING wrapped up its prolific festival run with a distribution deal with MTV Films, click here to watch the acclaimed documentary.
So what has led Huffman to explore this topic of Chinese oppression? “My filmmaking partner and wife Xiaoli Zhou and I worked with the China Research and Exploration Society (CERS) on a series of documentaries about endangered animals and cultures in China for the National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel. Xiaoli and I worked in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Yunnan often in areas off limits to foreigners. This experience gave me an insider’s perspective about life in China.”
“After completing my work with CERS, I moved on to examining the ways China moved into other countries. The resulting documentaries looked at West Africa with THE COLONY for Al Jazeera, Afghanistan with SAVING MES AYNAK for Netflix, the U.S. with FINDING YINGYING for MTV Docs/Paramount+, and now with my current China in Pakistan documentary for VICE.”
“My core passions are human rights and social justice, so at the heart of these projects are
human rights stories about the culture clash that happens between the two countries and the
individuals who face injustice and oppression as a result.”
Overcoming Challenges and Looking Ahead
As you might imagine, there were plenty of challenges for Huffman to overcome in the four years he dedicated to this project. “The biggest risks I faced were accessing the subjects in the film, and then gaining their trust to appear on camera. Even getting visas to Pakistan to visit the subjects was difficult, and there are many risks being a foreigner reporting on this topic. Once I gained the trust of the subjects in the doc, I then had to make sure they would be safe from retribution from China after telling their story.”
This project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Buffett Institute for Global Studies. Huffman is grateful to these organizations, as “without their support this project would not have been possible.”
Next up for Huffman is a feature length documentary about the central issues in this short VICE documentary. This project is currently under development.
“Ultimately, I hope the documentary can help subjects in the film and the Uyghurs by raising awareness to the humanitarian crisis they are facing.” If you are interested in helping the subjects of this documentary, Brent welcomes you to reach out to him directly. You can contact Brent by messaging him on his Twitter account right here.