BEIJING — Rights activists have criticized a Hollywood studio for filming a buddy comedy in an eastern Chinese city where a blind, self-taught activist lawyer is being held under house arrest and reportedly beaten.
Relativity Media is shooting part of the comedy "21 and Over" in Linyi, a city in Shandong province where the activist Chen Guangcheng's village is located. Authorities have turned Chen's village of Dongshigu into a hostile, no-go zone and activists, foreign diplomats and reporters have been turned back, threatened and had stones thrown at them by men patrolling the village.
The news that Relativity Media had chosen Linyi, a city of 10 million, as a location for its film and was touting its close government connections comes at a time when activists have renewed their attention on Chen. A campaign to visit the lawyer to draw attention to his plight has caught on and intensified over recent weeks, though none have succeeded and many visitors have been met with violence.
On China's popular Twitter-like microblog, Sina Weibo, some bloggers circulated email addresses for Relativity staff, urging users to write to the company in protest. A few called for a boycott of the film.
Relativity declined comment but said in a press release that filming in Linyi began last Wednesday. In the release, Linyi's top Communist Party official Zhang Shajun is quoted as calling Relativity's chief executive Ryan Kavanaugh a "good friend" while Relativity's Co-President Tucker Tooley describes Linyi as an "amazing" place.
"I hope Relativity Media will learn more about the real Linyi, about Chen Guangcheng, and see that what is currently happening in Dongshigu village is what is really 'amazing'," said Nanjing-based activist He Peirong in an interview.
"Especially at this time, when every day there are people trying to visit Chen Guangcheng, people who have been robbed and beaten, I express deep regret to see such remarks whitewashing the city of Linyi," she said.
In the past several weeks, dozens of activists and Chen's supporters have risked being violently assaulted to attempt visits to his home in a bid to draw attention to his plight. The latest group was made up of 37 petitioners who traveled there by bus from Beijing on Sunday and fled after being attacked by about 50 unidentified thugs as they approached Chen's village, said one petitioner, Peng Zhonglin, from Jiangxi province. Linyi police refused to comment when reached by phone.
Human Rights Watch senior Asia researcher Nicholas Bequelin said it was puzzling that Relativity appeared comfortable cozying up with the city's political leadership.
"They seem to be eager to assume this role of being a prop in Linyi's propaganda campaign to cast itself as a civilized municipality that promotes culture when the reality is that it is not only holding one of China's most prominent human rights defenders, but going to extraordinary lengths to persecute him," Bequelin said.
Relativity describes "21 and Over" as a comedy about two childhood friends who drag their friend out to celebrate his 21st birthday the night before a medical school interview in an evening that turns into "a wild epic misadventure of debauchery and mayhem." It stars "Footloose" star Miles Teller and Justin Chon who was in "The Twilight Saga."
Shooting in Linyi began on Wednesday and it was unclear how long they were scheduled to film there. Previous footage had been shot in Seattle, the company said. Relativity has produced or co-financed more than 200 movies including "Cowboys & Aliens," "Bridesmaids," and "Limitless."
Blinded by a fever in infancy and self-taught as a lawyer, Chen became an inspiring figure among rights activists for his dogged pursuit of justice. He documented forced late-term abortions and sterilizations in his rural community, angering authorities. He was eventually imprisoned for four years.
Relativity Media's press release: http://bit.ly/vyQ9iH
Follow Gillian Wong on Twitter at http://twitter.com/gillianwong