2017 Oak Fellow: Jinyan Zeng

Jinyan Zeng

“The kindness I received during my stay at Colby College has fundamentally changed me and has released me from my traumatic experiences in China from 2001 to 2012.”

Documentary Film

Jinyan Zeng, a Chinese filmmaker, blogger, activist, and scholar, served as the 2017 Oak Human Rights Fellow at Colby. This was the first time in its nearly 20-year history that the Oak Institute for Human Rights selected someone from the People’s Republic of China.

The Oak Institute used Zeng’s time on campus as an opportunity to highlight the powerful role of documentary film in advancing the cause of human rights.

Her class produced short videos to tell human rights stories in small groups. “They surprised me by putting so much effort into investigating local communities, raising critical questions toward authorities (including Colby College leadership,) and presenting their research projects with their own cinematic languages,” she said.

Zeng has spent more than a decade and a half fighting for people with HIV-AIDS, women facing discrimination, factory workers suffering exploitation, a natural environment threatened by pollution, and political dissidents experiencing repression. This work sometimes upsets the Chinese party-state, which at different times has detained and surveilled her.

In 2006 Zeng made her first documentary, Prisoners in Freedom City, about living under house arrest in Beijing. Her most recent film, We the Workers, had its world premier at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January 2017. During the production of that film, the Chinese party-state detained several of the featured labor activists, placed a few of them under house arrest, and forced still others to make “confessions” on state television. Zeng is cofounder of the Chinese Independent Documentary Lab in Hong Kong and the leading curator of an independent Chinese film series.

In 2017 Zeng earned a Ph.D. from the University of Hong Kong, where she studied film, gender, and cyber-activism. Her dissertation focused on the work of Ai Xiaoming, a feminist professor of literature and a documentary filmmaker in China.

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