Interview: Jewher Ilham on the Documentary “All Static and Noise”

On November 5, 2023, the Double Exposure Film Festival in Washington, D.C. screened the U.S. premiere of the documentary “All Static and Noise,” which investigates the arbitrary mass detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim-majority ethnic groups in Xinjiang, China. 

The film is titled after the Party Secretary of Xinjiang University’s 2017 call to eliminate any “static and noise,” i.e. dissent, about the “People’s War on Terror,” the Chinese government’s euphemism for its campaign against the Uyghur people. In 2020, CDT published a leaked censorship directive issued by central Party authorities to state media instructing that the still-unfinished documentary be blocked within China: “Please take note and block the following illegal videos: the Tibet-related documentary ‘A Fugitive for 60 Years: the Dalai Lama’s Old Age,’ the Xinjiang documentary ‘Static and Noise,’ and the Hong Kong documentary ‘City of Tears.’” 

The official trailer for “All Static and Noise” can be viewed here:

After the showing, CDT conducted a brief interview with Jewher Ilham, rights activist and daughter of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti; David Novack, the film’s director; and Janice Englehart, a producer/writer. Their responses situate Jewher Ilham’s advocacy in the longer tradition of those initially drawn into broader activism by the plight of a loved one. The transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for grammar only:

CDT: You mentioned in the Q&A that your politics changed over the course of making this film. Could you elaborate on that? 

Jewher Ilham: Up to the end of 2018, I was solely advocating for the release of my father, Ilham Tohti. After getting involved in this film, I came to my senses. I realized that this is not only about one family, my family, anymore. It is about hundreds of thousands of Uyghur families. I wanted to do everything I could to talk about Uyghurs in general, to free all the Uyghurs who have been rounded up into detention facilities. Back then, I thought that if I were to talk about Uyghur human rights issues, it would be too political. So, I wanted it to be mostly personal: I’m going to talk about my father as a daughter. But since getting involved in this film, I started talking as a Uyghur individual—not just as a daughter, not just as a little girl—to advocate for the release of all Uyghurs. 

Also, I don’t know if you noticed: in the beginning of the film I would refer to the region as Xinjiang. Until 2019, most Uyghurs would call the region Xinjiang, which is the official name in Chinese. Now, after being involved in the film, after interviewing so many people, not only with the film but through my personal work with the Worker Rights Consortium, I interviewed Uyghur people who were detained and put into forced labor. After speaking with all these people, I do not feel comfortable—or I feel like I will go insane—if I keep referring to this region as Xinjiang, which is a very colonial term. “New Territory,” technically, that’s what it means. I call it the Uyghur Region. Many Uyghurs in the diaspora prefer to call it another name, the historical name of East Turkistan. However, it’s going to take me some time because the Chinese government has extremely politicized this term to mean that using the term is equivalent to inciting separatism or violence or extremism. My father was put in prison, sentenced to life for separatism-related charges, and I am still very cautious with being seen in public using this term because it could be perfect evidence handed to the Chinese government. 

Back then I wouldn’t advocate for legislation [in other countries]. I would mostly talk about individual cases to make it as personal as possible. But now I realized, as I mentioned earlier, that legislation drives compliance and pushes change. Unfortunately, that is the key way now. That is the fastest way to trigger change, for people around the world but also to the Chinese government. Hit them where it hurts. Legislation will hurt their economy, and the Chinese government cares about their economy. That’s how we’re going to trigger change in China. 

Those are some of the political ideology changes that I have had over the past few years since getting involved in this film. I remember my friend said, “You’ve gotten bolder since moving to D.C.” I said, “It’s inevitable.” Many Uyghurs did not want to be involved in politics at all. They just wanted to live their lives, drink the soup made at home and do IT or do dancing or be a professional chef. Most people just want to be like you—to do things that they are passionate about. But now they are forced to have a political opinion. They are forced to learn about politics. They are forced to push for change. They are forced to become lobbyists all the time. Why? Because we all want our families to be free.

Janice Englehart:  I don’t know that my politics have changed, because I’ve always been suspect of the way the Chinese government treats its people. We actually started this film much differently, looking at 1989 and the rights abuses there. What always struck me—I was living in China at the time between 2009-2018—and it was in some ways ingenious of the government because what they would do is persecute family members. If you’re a rights defender, you’ve made the choice, knowingly, that you’ll probably end up in prison. But the wives of these activists or their family members didn’t ask to not be allowed to go to school or to be followed constantly. That’s how we came to Jewher—because she is a family member of someone who’s been persecuted by the Chinese government. Then it evolved in the summer of 2018, where we realized, “This is bigger, this is urgent, and it’s happening.” So all resources and focus went to focusing on Jewher’s story. We didn’t start that way but we were motivated that way. It wasn’t really the politics, per se, that influenced the film. It was in the context of that that drew us to focus here. 

We’re still optimistic that we can utilize the rest of our hundreds of hours of footage to tell a different story, too. The Chinese government’s behavior in the Uyghur region is similar to its behavior towards rights activists’ and lawyers’ families on the mainland, and what is happening now in Hong Kong. It’s a Party-state. If you are not in complete agreement with the way they run things—

David Novack: —then you are all static and noise—

Englehart: —and must be eliminated. Now, the difference though, of course, in the Uyghur situation is these people were not protesting. They were not exercising their rights. It’s because of their religion and their place, perhaps geographically, that they’ve been completely dominated. That was another thing that drew us to focus here.


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