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About halfway through the documentary film “Well-Founded Fear,” after the Chinese dissident poet Huang Xiang has tearfully recounted the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of Chinese authorities, the U.S. asylum officer hearing his case is left alone with the camera to consider the mass of evidence presented on Huang’s behalf. “After you get over this much,” the officer says, holding his fingers five or six inches apart to reflect the size of Huang’s file, “I’ve never known it to be frivolous. This is not frivolous. It can’t be.” Moments later, he decides that he will recommend approval for Huang’s application. “My reaction is I’m humbled,” the officer says. “What a life.” The scene, above all, is a tribute to the sheer power of Huang’s story. But it also speaks to the efforts of his pro bono attorney, Jennifer Schantz of Schulte Roth & Zabel, and to the importance of lawyers in a process that can often seem arbitrary and cruel. “It would be great if more people could have the chance to have an attorney who was as good and did as good a job,” said Michael Camerini, one of the film’s directors, of Schantz. “It certainly is a truth that an attorney can make a big difference. For every client who has a Jen Schantz, there are five more who need one.” “Well-Founded Fear,” which made its television debut last week on the PBS documentary series “POV,” takes its name from the “well-founded fear of persecution” that is the statutory standard for asylum grants. The documentary film has also been screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the New York International Documentary Festival. It follows the progress of about a dozen asylum seekers in 1998 at Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in Queens, N.Y., and Lyndhurst, N.J. The filmmakers approached Schantz in late 1997, shortly after she had been assigned Huang’s case through the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and asked for permission to film the progress of his asylum application. Schantz, 31, then a third-year litigation associate, first sought the counsel of Marcy Harris, the Schulte Roth partner supervising her work on the case. The two lawyers worried that the filming could hurt Huang’s application through a loss of attorney-client privilege, and might cause harm for his family members still in China. But those concerns were swept away by Huang’s enthusiasm for telling his story. “He embraced it,” Schantz said. “Finally he was able to display himself in front of people. This was his opportunity to communicate with the world.” Huang, who is 58, recalled that his suffering began shortly after the Communists took power in China in 1949. His father had been a general for the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-Shek before being captured and killed by the Communists, and as a result Huang and his family were labeled members of the “bad classes.” As an adult, Huang spent years in detention in Chinese prisons and forced labor camps as punishment for his pro-democracy writings. In one camp, he was forced to live in a mud hut with a pit as a bed, and was taken at gunpoint into the Gobi Desert daily to make bricks. In another, he was strung up from the ceiling for hours at a time and beaten viciously by a citizens militia. One powerful scene in “Well-Founded Fear” shows Huang’s harrowing reactions after a medical exam undertaken to get objective corroboration of the injuries he suffered from torture. In convulsions of anguish, he speaks of shattered bones in his hands, the tearing of the skin on his palms and broken veins in his feet. “I do not dare to remember my past,” he wails. “I do not dare!” Given that kind of excruciating detail, it took about 10 meetings of two to three hours each for Schantz to get Huang’s story in order for the filings. The result was a 90-page memorandum of law replete with documentation of China’s treatment of political prisoners, and an unusually long, 44-page affidavit from Huang. With headings like “Wandering,” “Underground Salon” and “Celestial Bodies Exploding,” the affidavit itself at times reads like poetry. On screen in the actual asylum interview in Queens, Huang is an arresting presence, speaking with animated facial expressions and dramatic hand gestures. And two weeks later, when the camera records the moment when Huang, his wife and Schantz return to the Immigration office to get the good news of his approval, Huang’s smile is positively luminous. HAPPY ENDING For the filmmakers, who wanted to highlight the wide range of asylum cases, Huang was incredibly useful. “We wanted to make sure we had a strong case, the kind officers would call a ‘walk-on-water’ case,” Camerini said, “a case that illustrates why we need asylum.” Huang is now living in Tenafly, N.J., with his wife and two children, who have joined him from China. He is writing his autobiography and has published a collection of his protest poetry called “Forbidden Poems.” He invited Schantz and her family to a Chinese New Year party at his home in February. As it happens, Schantz is leaving Schulte Roth after five years to work in the Civil Division of the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the film has lent her final days of law firm life an air of celebrity. Asked for her review of her own role, Schantz chuckled and said, “I think I came off as the lawyer who did too much.” But she said she was also hit by an almost euphoric sense of accomplishment. “That was great,” she said, “the feeling that I was part of this really incredible thing.”

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