Rabiya Kadeer is the most famous human rights activist you’ve never heard of.
For decades, the 63-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee has campaigned for the self-determination of China’s, predominantly Muslim, Uyghur minority and developed into an opposition figure to the Chinese government. Kadeer is the subject of Jeff Daniels’ The 10 Conditions of Love, a 53-minute documentary that caused a storm of controversy last year at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
After the festival’s organizers refused a request from the Chinese consulate to have the film withdrawn, MIFF’s website was allegedly hacked and at least $50,000 in ticket sales were lost. Three Chinese filmmakers pulled out of the festival in protest. The controversy garnered international attention and pressure from the Chinese government caused the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to cancel a scheduled broadcast of the documentary.
However, all the attention begs the question: does the film live up to its hype? Not quite, as it turns out.
It’s not that The 10 Conditions of Love lacks a strong protagonist8212;quite the opposite. Kadeer is fearless, uncompromising, charismatic and more than a little aware of her own importance.
Born in poverty in Altay, Xinjiang, she rose from a life of hardship to become president of the World Uyghur Congress. During the Cultural Revolution, Kadeer was branded a class enemy for starting an embroidery business to supplement her first husband’s meagre income. The exposure led to their divorce.
As a single mother of 11, Kadeer had limited prospects. She began to wash other people’s clothes and eventually built the enterprise into a successful business. Kadeer remarried, expanded her business ventures, became one of China’s five richest people, and used her wealth to train and employ fellow Uyghurs.
In 1999, she was arrested by the Chinese government for “endangering state security” and spent the next six years in prison. In 2005, Kadeer was released to United States custody on medical grounds, where she was reunited with her family in Washington, D.C.
The film’s shortcomings stem from presenting a complicated life within the confines of a one-hour documentary. The director can’t seem to make up his mind on which parts of Kadeer’s life to focus on, whether it be the alleged attempt on her life in Washingon, D.C., the imprisonment of three of her children in China or the great love between Kadeer and her second husband.
Daniels also glosses over some of the more emotional aspects of Kadeer the activist, such as the effects of her actions on her family. Kadeer’s daughter Ray, for example, disavows her mother’s choices. “Our people, they support her 100 per cent, whatever she does,” Ray said. “But for me? I want my brothers and sisters out first before anything happens.”
The film also fails to explore the other side of the controversy, such as allegations that Kadeer has ties to militant Uyghur organizations like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Though these and other similar accusations may be unfounded, they should be addressed for the sake of balance.
Despite its faults, the organizers of the MIFF were right to defend The 10 Conditions of Love. Not only does it generate debate about the plight of China’s Uyghurs, the film also presents one of the most fascinating human rights figures of our time.
The 10 Conditions of Love plays at the Montreal Human Rights Film Festival on March 20 at 5 p.m. Rebiya Kadeer was present at the March 13 screening.