When Dejan Markovic was preparing to premiere his film, “The Blacklisted,” he was expecting some pushback, but not on the scale of what actually happened.
“One month before the festival, there was a burglary and vandalism in my office,” Markovic told NTD News.
“The director of the film noticed that we [were being] watched by the police,” he said, “and it’s not one or two policemen—it’s many people, tailing us around the city in the car … and whatever you do.”
He added, “because I’m experienced in that kind of tailing by the police, when you see them, it means that they want you to [see them]. So we understood this as pressure … to make some kind of auto-censorship in the film.”
As one of six films screened at the Bel Docs International Film Festival in Belgrade earlier this month, the documentary talks about the persecution in China of the spiritual discipline, Falun Gong—also known as Falun Dafa—and how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) extends this persecution to other countries like Serbia.
In 2014, Serbian police detained 11 European citizens during the Chinese Summit when the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was visiting Serbia. All 11 Europeans were Falun Gong practitioners who were planning to protest during the summit.
The horrifying deeds committed by the CCP that are exposed in the film continue today. Markovic said the same forces behind the persecution tried to stop the film from screening.
‘They Just Disappeared’
Markovic said that before the 2014 summit with China, Serbia never had any problem with Falun Gong practitioners’ efforts to raise awareness about human rights atrocities in China.
“However, that year, everything changed,” he said, “the police banned all the activities of Falun Gong practitioners, without any legal reason to do it.”
Markovic said most practitioners who were planning to protest were forced to cancel their trip, but nine people from Bulgaria, one from Finland, and one from Slovakia did manage to enter Serbia.
“However, the moment they checked into their hotel, the police came and took their mobile phones, and took their passports,” Markovic said, “And in the end, they … ended up in a detention center.”
“They were not given the right to call a lawyer. They were not given the right to make a phone call. And this was very unusual in Serbia,” he said.
The practitioners were only freed after the Chinese leader left Serbia. “They call this kidnapping, because they were not officially arrested,” Markovic said, “They just disappeared.”
Markovic said the arrest was particularly traumatic for one of the activists arrested, Lihua Lan, who is originally from China. She escaped the persecution there and became a refugee in Finland.
“She was tortured in China, arrested three times. So obviously, she is traumatized by what happened,” he said, “And imagine she is coming to Serbia, a democratic country. And suddenly, she is kidnapped. Of course, there was no police violence on her. But how can you not remember what happened to you in China, when you were in prison?”
Markovic said the festival was forced to change venue four times, as the first three venues were all canceled for stated reasons such as fire safety, security, and celebrating the end of the second world war.
After a local newspaper interviewed the film director two weeks before the premiere, hours before the paper was printed, the festival owner received a call from the Chinese embassy.
“In this call, they ask him if there are any Chinese films on the festival. They said no,” Markovic said, “And the second question was, who is the main sponsor of the festival? Is it the government? Which government body is that? And so on.”
Markovic said the pressure and endless police tailing almost made him give up.
“My family members are very annoyed by this kind of behavior. They are afraid,” he said, “At one point, I even said to the director, ‘Well, we can really cancel the festival, if that’s the only solution.’ But the director, Sarah, she said ‘No, we need to follow this [through].’”
“One of the protagonists of the films, he said our weapon is the truth, and we need to bring it out to the light of day,” he said.
Markovic said the festival organizers and some Serbian film professionals were upset by the behavior of the Chinese embassy and Serbian authorities. They raised their voice to defend the film.
“The festival actually appeals to the Chinese government to understand that we here, we don’t ban films,” Markovic said. Prominent Serbian film director Srdjan Dragojevic voiced his support through Twitter. And many young film enthusiasts working for the festival asked for the support of their professors in the film academy.
Odlicno. Video sam trailer.
— Srdjan Dragojevic (@srdjandrago) May 9, 2019
The film eventually had a successful premiere on May 10th. “After the film, many people congratulated us. And told us that we were very brave,” Markovic said.
He said that while people may not have believed the film initially, now they can see for themselves how the Chinese regime sabotages human rights.
“They are witnesses of that,” he said, adding that they are now much more likely to believe the horrific stories in the film.
Markovic said that Dvorana Kulturnog Centra, where the film is initially planned to be screened but was closed by the fire department five days before the premiere, is soon to be opened.
“As a way to apologize to the festival, they offered to screen all six films from the Serbian competition,” he said. “The Blacklisted” will be showing on May 28.
“It’s a small victory of all free-minded people in Serbia against darkness and lies by CCP,” he said.
NTD reporter Miguel Moreno contributed to this report.