"I'm proud that I was able to give my two cents to the fight for, and rise of, a New China — infinitely improved over the old one," Rittenberg said in an e-mail interview. "I deeply regret that I was doctrinaire enough to join in the internal political struggles among Chinese."
Sellers plans to have Rittenberg, who lives near Seattle, answer audience questions via Skype after the screening.
"To see this film you've got to bring your brain with you," said Sellers, who grew up in New Hope and took his first film class at Bucks County Community College. "There's a lot of films, you sit down, you watch. … This film, you have to do some of the work yourself."
Rittenberg played a vocal role in one of the 20th century's great disasters, the Cultural Revolution, which plunged China into lawlessness from 1966 to 1976. That era echoes today in the mistreatment of Chinese dissidents such as Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who recently escaped from custody and came to the United States.
Rittenberg has spent decades artfully rebuilding his life, and painfully examining his personal responsibility for harm to others. He remains a subject of infinite fascination for scholars, analysts, and journalists who study China.
"I didn't expect him to be so forthcoming about questioning his own premises, questioning his own beliefs and convictions," said producer Irv Drasnin, a veteran China documentary-maker, formerly of CBS News.
The film's structure is simple and powerful: The camera focuses tightly on Rittenberg as he dissects his decisions, a technique similar to that used in The Fog of War, the Oscar-winning documentary about Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
Rittenberg's words are enhanced by the details of propaganda posters that hung across China during the Cultural Revolution: The beatific smiles on those blessed to stand near Chairman Mao, the hateful glares directed at American imperialists.
Rittenberg was born to a prominent family in Charleston, S.C., in 1921, coincidentally the same year the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai. As a college student, he became active in labor and civil-rights issues.
He arrived in China as an Army Chinese-language specialist in September 1945, just as the Chinese civil war was beginning. When his Army hitch ended, he decided to stay. He traveled to the Yan'an mountains and met a young Mao Tse-tung, then organizing communists to fight the nationalists.
Rittenberg's logic: China's people were poor and suffering. The communists seemed to be the only ones trying to fix that. But he didn't want to be a mere adviser. He wanted to be part of the action. He was granted party membership, virtually impossible for a foreigner. Even today, among Chinese, membership is relatively rare, held only by about 70 million of 1.3 billion people — 5 percent of the nation.
Rittenberg was trusted to translate important Central Committee documents and even Mao's collected works. He became close to Jiang Qing, Mao's notorious, radical wife, and a friend to statesman Zhou Enlai.
He saw the growing cult of personality around Mao — and soon was touched by it.
In 1949, Rittenberg was wrongly accused of spying. He was sent to Beijing Prison No. 2 and thrown into solitary. It didn't shake his faith in the party. Offered the chance to leave prison and return to the United States, Rittenberg declined.
"He still believed in the revolution," said Lucy Ostrander, Sellers' spouse and filmmaking partner, and producer of The Revolutionary.
Rittenberg thought the party investigation would clear him, that the leaders had the capacity to admit and rectify mistakes. And, eventually, that's what happened.
After six years, he was released and appointed to a sensitive position, a show of the party's confidence. At the Broadcast Administration, he was put in charge of the English-language section of Radio Beijing. For the next decade he thrived.
In 1966, Mao unleashed the violence, upheaval, and roiling political currents of the Cultural Revolution. Rittenberg, not sensing the danger, joined in the struggles and denunciations. In 1968 he was arrested for criticizing the government and sent back to solitary.
He expected to die in prison. A decade earlier, Mao might have admitted a mistake. But now, as a god figure, he would never concede to twice being wrong.
In 1976, though, events again changed Rittenberg's fortune: Zhou died in January. Mao died in September. The Cultural Revolution ended. The Gang of Four, including Mao's wife, was arrested.
He was released in 1977, his spirit intact, his faith in communism broken. He moved to the United States in 1980, and today leads Rittenberg Associates Inc., a China consulting firm whose clients have included Prudential Financial, Intel, and Microsoft.
"Sid really had three lives," said Sellers, who has edited programs for Frontline. "He had this whole life as a labor organizer. He had the life in China. He had the life in the U.S., after he came back, penniless, the life of reestablishing himself."
In a way, the film got its start in 1983, when Ostrander made a movie about journalist Anna Louise Strong, who had interviewed Mao in Yan'an in 1946. Strong needed an interpreter, and who was there but Rittenberg.
Ostrander interviewed Rittenberg for that film. Two decades later, Sellers noticed a news story about him. Ostrander looked up his autobiography, The Man Who Stayed Behind, cowritten with former Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett.
Twenty-six hours of interviews were carved down to 92 minutes. Now there are plans for a theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles, and a DVD including special extras — like Rittenberg playing gin rummy with Mao.
Rittenberg said in an e-mail that he thought the film was wonderful. And that while China has changed dramatically, it has far to go.
"The day is rapidly passing when improvement in livelihood will induce people to accept gross inequalities and injustices," he said. "Either the leaders will carry out vigorous, incremental reforms, or they will ultimately have them carried out for them."
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, firstname.lastname@example.org; or on follow Twitter @JeffGammage.