When a totalitarian state uses violence, intimidation, and humiliation to rule over its people, it is hardly surprising when clinical depression develops as a by-product. Yet, we rarely address the lingering emotional issues for those who live through traumatic oppression, like the kind wrought by Mao and Stalin. For victims, this often layers on additional levels of stigma. Dr. Zenglo Chen would know only too well. He survived the Cultural Revolution, but the atrocities and privations he endured continued to torment him over the subsequent decades. Dawn Dreyer & Andrea Love chronicle his healing process in the animated documentary short Fear (trailer here), which screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
At the age of four, Dr. Chen’s parents were persecuted and eventually condemned to re-education camps, leaving the young boy in the care of his twelve-year-old sister. Given the hardships his family endured, Chen was certainly entitled to periodic bouts with the blues. Unfortunately, his survivor’s guilt and abandonment issues would prove emotionally paralyzing, even after he moved to America. Despite his training as an organizational psychologist, Dr. Chen had trouble “curing” himself. It was not until he integrated spiritual elements into his life that Dr. Chen finally started feeling at peace with himself.
It turns out those Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms do some genuine good from time to time, at least judging from Dr. Chen’s story. Indeed, there is a great deal we can learn from the way Dr. Chen balances his personal faith with the science and medicine of his vocation. It is an inspiring film in many ways, sensitively rendered by Love, the animator, through hand-drawn and stop-motion techniques.
Dr. Chen is a real role model, but his life-story is much more complicated than “mere” triumph over adversity. In a brief seven minutes, Dreyer & Love give viewers a sense of that rich complexity. Still, there is considerably more uplift in Fear than the vast majority of documentaries on the Cultural Revolution and mental illness. It is a deeply moving film that features some cool animation as an extra added bonus. Very highly recommended as a stand-alone film on its own merits, Fear will be incorporated into Dreyer & Love’s feature-length project Bipolar Girl Rules the World and Other Stories, following its screening as part of the Whoopi’s Shorts program at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.