“History rolled right over my body” may be Sidney Rittenberg’s rueful summation of his time as a willing propagandist for the Chinese communist party.
But journalist-turned-filmmaker Irv Drasnin thankfully does not make the same conclusion in The Revolutionary, a documentary covering Rittenberg’s time in China. Though Drasnin interviewed Rittenberg, a prominent member of the Chinese Communists’ Broadcast Administration projects, over the course of five years, his patience should not be confused with indulgence. The director doesn’t hesitate to ask Rittenberg why he trekked 500 miles, mostly on foot, to the Communist headquarters at Yan’an just to become a party member.
But Drasnin also never chastises Rittenberg for his complicity in the Cultural Revolution as a self-described, “father, confessor, and councillor.” It’s important to note that Drasnin, who can be heard questioning Rittenberg throughout the talking-head interview segments, does not ask Rittenberg why he wasn’t more moved by the sight of his peers being punished for their dissenting opinions, but instead asks, “How was this affecting you?”
Rittenberg understands what happened during the Cultural Revolution, and Drasnin knows he doesn’t need to confront Rittenberg with the consequences of his actions. As a filmmaker, Drasnin should not have relied so singularly on the testimony of Rittenberg’s testimony, and he could have pressed Rittenberg further, especially when the latter explains why he thinks he was imprisoned for six years—as a test of loyalty.