“Sandstorm” Wins Top Honors at International Film Festival

Independent Film Depicts Haunted Conscience of Torturer

Mr. Larry Smallwood, Chair of the 27th Annual Philafilm Festival (left) and “Sandstorm” writer/director Michael Mahonen.

Mr. Larry Smallwood, Chair of the 27th Annual Philafilm Festival (left) and “Sandstorm” writer/director Michael Mahonen.

NEW YORK (FDI) – A Chinese language film about the persecution of Falun Gong is continuing to gain wide praise, most recently winning top honors at the 27th Annual Philadelphia International Film Festival (Philafilm).

“Sandstorm,” a movie that depicts the moral awakening of a policeman involved in torturing Falun Gong practitioners, received the Philafilm’s Gold Award for Best Feature Film on July 3, 2004. Sandstorm also won Best Feature Film at the deadCenter Film Festival in Oklahoma City in June and a “Festival Special Prize” at the Law & Society International Film Festival in Moscow in April.

“To dramatize the story in a way that’s both entertaining but at the same time informative is what the judges saw and what I saw in making this film stand apart from everything else,” says Philafilm director Larry Smallwood. “It is the best film in the festival.”

Trapped at home for twelve days in a massive sandstorm, and running out of food and water, policeman He Tianying cares for his wife who is dying due to lack of medicine as they grieve the disappearance of their daughter who has gone missing in the sandstorm.

In this isolation, He’s conscience visits him as he recalls torturing a particular female Falun Gong practitioner. She repeatedly warns the police officers that they are not only harming her, but themselves and their families as well.

Indeed, one of the movie’s central themes is that good and evil receive due retribution, a traditional belief in Chinese culture. In the movie, the policeman realizes that the deadly sandstorm that has hit China is the result of a widespread and brutal persecution that has darkened the whole nation.

The 76-minute film is a vivid depiction of the outcome of just “doing one’s job.” As the jail supervisor passes down orders from above, policeman He and a young policewoman are torn between following orders and following their consciences.

“The initial audience I had in mind when writing the script were the Chinese police officers who are persecuting [Falun Gong] practitioners,” says writer and director Michael Mahonen on the official Sandstorm website www.sandstormmovie.com. He says some of the police officers have been deceived by the propaganda, some are afraid of losing their jobs, and yet others are taking advantage of the situation to make dishonest profits.

“Sandstorm is meant to shed light on these hidden atrocities by revealing the truth of the persecution of Falun Gong to people both inside and outside of China in the way that only film can,” says Mahonen.

The film was made entirely by volunteers, and was shot in their converted homes and basements.

The film’s success is remarkable considering that many of its cast and crew were first timers. Although already an accomplished actor, it is the first film written or directed by Mahonen. Mahonen has won Canada’s Gemini award as top male actor along with three other Gemini nominations among other awards. He is widely known for his role as Gus Pike in Road to Avonlea, the most popular television series in Canadian history.

The main character He Tianying is played by Rong Tian, who had no previous experience or training in acting. Rong’s debut performance is delivered with great depth and subtlety as he plays a complex character with a touching human feel.

The female practitioner is played by Lili Li, who acted out torture scenes in a Chinese jail, including being shocked with electric batons and being brutally force fed – the latter of which she suffered in real life while detained by Chinese police.

The movie warns that the actual torture is much worse than depicted in the film.

Victims like Chen Gang, a Falun Gong practitioner who was tortured in Beijing, agree. After watching it for the first time Chen said, “It reminded me of my personal experience. The persecution in China is actually much worse. I don’t even want to recall the terrible things. It was too dark.”

Sandstorm’s documenting of these atrocities was particularly appreciated by the Philafilm director. It is “a film about personal freedom at a level that’s unprecedented,” Smallwood said. “I think the impact of what it depicts is what’s important, because it’s something that’s continuing. It’s not something that happened yesterday and then it went away.”