A new look at Mao Zedong

Emily Passey

“The Passion of the Mao,” the so-called “irreverent” documentary from University of Chicago East Asian Studies research associate cum director Lee Feigon, aired at Wriston Auditorium 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17. The film is Feigon’s directorial premiere and was released fall 2006.
In the words of director-producer-writer Feigon, his premiere film “sets the record straight” and “reexamines the Cultural Revolution and restores the once bright reputation of Mao Zedong.”
The film, which premiered at the Cinequest International Film Festival in the San Francisco Bay area, has been called “rollicking,” “smart and smart-alecky,” “irreverent,” and “madcap.”
All these it certainly is, but the film also seems to have pioneered what Feigon and others call “a whole new documentary form.”
“The Passion of the Mao” combines straightforward, unbiased history-telling with a comedic and ironic flair.
Narrator Aaron Freeman, a contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and stand-up comedian, was chosen for his “comedic voice,” says Feigon.
The comprehensive and objective documentary uses primary sources such as archival footage and interviews with Chinese immigrants who experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand, but it sets these sources against iconic images of the communist leader, hilarious animation, and ’60s American music. This is one documentary you certainly would not sleep through.
Feigon began work on this documentary with the aid of a 17-year-old nephew and Final Cut Pro, after publishing a book on Mao Zedong.
Always a lover of film, Feigon felt that the documentary form was more appropriate for his message.
Feigon points out that the somewhat incongruous combination of archival footage and acoustic guitar sing-along style songs actually captures the spirit that surrounded Mao’s reign in China by making use of the way that Mao was made an icon in the Western world.
The story of the film’s creation is as unique as the film itself, involving Swiss bank accounts, Russian Mafiosists, and film editor cab drivers.
Feigon vividly related his adventure into the world of feature-length films as introduction before the film was shown.
Despite concerns that the film ignores the violent reality of Mao Zedong’s regime, Feigon says he simply “wanted to make talking about Mao enjoyable,” as it certainly seems to be for him.
The documentary does not take one side or the other in the debate over whether Mao was a tyrant in the image of Stalin and Hitler or a Christ-like savior.
Feigon highlights Mao Zedong’s efforts and interests in advancing the position of women, creating an educated peasant class, and encouraging cultural movement, while not ignoring the realities such as the famine of 1959 – which in two years reduced China’s population by 16 million – or the violence of the riots and rallies that took place all across China.
Feigon points out that the film has been, thus far, “very well-received” by its academic audiences and even by the largely Chinese audiences in front of which it has been shown.
Feigon, who writes about East Asian politics, history and economics for such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and Barron’s, was invited to Lawrence by Associate Professor of Chinese Jane Parish Yang.
Yang worked with Feigon at Colby College in Maine, and, when she saw Feigon’s film advertised, did her utmost to get him to Lawrence.
The showing was sponsored by LUCE, Professor Mark Frazier, the Chinese and Japanese studies department, and money left over from a Freeman Foundation Grant.