Updated 9:20 PT
Relativity Media has issued a statement in response to the recent criticism from human rights groups regarding "21 and Over," its first Chinese co-production:
"From its founding, Relativity Media has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of human rights and we would never knowingly do anything to undermine this commitment. We stand by that commitment and we are proud of our growing business relationships in China, through our partnership with Sky Land, its strategic alliance with Huaxia Film Distribution Company. As a company, we believe deeply that expanding trade and business ties with our counterparts in China and elsewhere can result in positive outcomes."
Human Rights Watch, a leading activist group, told TheWrap on Sunday that Relativity's relationship with Linyi, and specifically the local government's party secretary, is unacceptable.
“Picking Linyi as a film location is probably not a good idea, but signing a deal with a person who is directly responsible for one of most egregious and cruel abuses of a human rights defender in China is really beyond the pale,” said Nicholas Becquelin, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Asian division.
The film, the first under Relativity's new Chinese co-production venture, has shot a scene in Linyi, located in China's Shangdong province. Linyi is home to Chen Guangcheng, a prominent civil rights activist who has been detained since 2005.
It is also home to local party secretary Zhang Shajun, the government official who is cited as Relativity's partner and who is also associated with the repression of Chen.
Relativity in August announced a groundbreaking relationship with China, cofinancing and coproducing movies.
The protest by human rights groups underscored the complications that may result from close business relationships with the Chinese government.
As sources have confirmed that the production in the province has ended, it remains to be seen what action Human Rights Watch can take.
Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer, has been subject to threats, beatings and other hostile acts, as have his relatives, his supporters, his lawyers and other connections.
Chinese activists, who have renewed their attention on Chen of late, have taken umbrage with Relativity not just because it entered a relationship with the government of Linyi, but because it made of point of lauding the city.
In a press release issued Oct. 27, Relativity quoted the party secretary of Linyi Zhang praising Relativity and "his good friend" CEO Ryan Kavanaugh. The release said, “We are very much looking forward to shooting in China, especially in a place as amazing as Linyi.”
Becquelin said the conclusion of the production is irrelevant to the greater issue of Relativity’s “disturbing” relationship with Linyi.
“The press release makes clear that this is not solely a matter of shooting one day,” Becquelin said. “It presents it as building a partnership with the Linyi government and an investment. Our concern is business association with the Linyi government, not a particular shoot.”
Human Rights Watch is not the only group getting involved.
Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers, wrote on the group's website that, "It is unconscionable for Relativity Media to make this film in Linyi. While Relativity Media is creating a 'wild epic misadventure,' about beer-drinking and debauchery, Chen Guangcheng is suffering unspeakable torment — beaten, tortured, denied medical treatment and being slowly starved to death — right under their noses.”
Bloggers on Chinese micro-blogging service Sina Weibo have also written about the subject, circulating contact information for Relativity executives.
Charlie Custer, the editor-in-chief of ChinaGeeks, “a website about China,” posed a letter he penned to Relativity, which ended as follows:
“Because maybe it’s just my sense of humor, but holding an innocent blind man and his family in their house, beating and robbing well-intentioned net users trying to visit him, and then lying about it to the world does not sound like a great premise for a hilarious buddy comedy. And every day you’re in Linyi shooting '21 and Over,' you’re funding that, too, whether you want to be or not."
Relativity responded to Custer asking him to attribute them with a no comment.
It is unclear what any of these groups will ask for now that production has ended. But it likely won't stop them from trying to stir the same kind of public sentiment that occurred after Hilary Swank and Jean Claude Van Damme attended the Oct. 5 birthday party of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Chen’s case has been well-reported in the Western media, and he has become one of the most famous activists in all of China after the likes of Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and renowned artist Ai Weiwei.
Originally an advocate for the blind and disabled, Chen began to investigate the extreme tactics used to enforce China’s “one child policy,” including forced abortions and sterilizations.
As a result of his efforts to raise awareness of the issue, he was first placed under house arrest in 2005. Since then, he served four years in prison and was then placed under house arrest yet again. This house arrest entails constant surveillance of both his activities and those of his close relatives.
Those who have attempted to visit Chen have been the victim of beatings and other forms of repression, as have lawyers attempting to represent him, Becquelin said.
Though Relativity may have been unaware of the situation in Linyi, this is indicative of the trouble Hollywood studios face in expanding into China. The country is fertile ground for film productions thanks to its low production costs, varied tableaus and lax regulatory policies.
In fact, the government’s control over society facilitates productions, because it can prevent labor unrest and secure locations without risk of legal action.
Relativity announced its entrance into the Chinese film market back in August when it struck a deal with SkylLand Film and Television Cultural Development LTD, a China-based entertainment production company.
That same month, Chinese media conglomerate DMG put together a $300 million fillm fund to co-finance tentpoles for studios.