It took mere minutes for the schools to collapse in Sichuan Province. Back on 12 May 2008, at Fuxin Primary School, 127 students were killed, another 317 lost at Hanwang Primary School and 438 at Xinjian Primary School. “Where is my daughter?” wails a father at Hanwang more than a week after the earthquake. “I can’t find you after 10 days I haven’t seen her face.”
The camera stays close on his face. At once intimate and devastating, such tight framing pervades China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. Much like Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s previous HBO documentaries—Baghdad ER (2006) and Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery (2008)—the new film contemplates loss. As survivors feel grief, frustration, and no small fury, they are moved by new and strange energy as well. In the case of the parents of the dead children in China, anguish is galvanizing.
That doesn’t make it less painful. Of the 70,000 people who died in the earthquake, 10,000 were children, crushed inside buildings that were put together with shoddy mortar or without mortar altogether—bricks piled on top of bricks, unfixed. And it wasn’t just the quake that killed, in instants. Some victims died while lying beneath crushing weight, their voices heard calling for their parents or their last cell phone messages left on digital recorders: “On evening of the 12th,” one father cries, “She called me: ‘Daddy, please come save me. Bring the firemen.’”
As horrifying as the numbers are—and because of China’s strict one-child policy, many parents lost their only children—China’s Unnatural Disaster is more focused on the efforts of particular parents to find out what happened. The initial expressions of sorrow and sad hope (“I wish them all a good journey,” one mother whimpers as she gazes on rubble and the accumulating memorial materials, photos and incense and candles) give way to questions. How could these buildings have collapsed so completely, when others nearby are still standing? “The money for schools,” asks one parent “Where did it go?” Alpert and O’Neill’s crew follows the Fuxin School parents as they pursue justice, or at least a response from officials concerning the buildings’ “tofu construction.” They mean at first to “demand an explanation from the Bureau of Education.” Carrying banners and framed portraits of their children, the parents make a loud spectacle of themselves, plainly unnerving Bureau of Education director Mao Renfu. He stands in their midst, pelted by questions and accusations, the camera low and looking up at him. And he says nothing.
“We’re not asking for money,” insists one protestor. “We want to prevent future tragedies. This is a lesson of blood.” When the local officials do not respond, the parents march on, 70 miles to the capital of Sichuan. Here they are joined by Jiang Guohua, a Communist Party secretary who trots along with them, offering meager solace. “I am marching with them for justice,” he says, inspiring someone behind him to yell out, ” You bastard. Go away. You are only going to make things worse.” He tries again, literally kneeling in front of the parents, pleading with them to be patient. One father cries, “The government is suppressing us.” Jiang Guohua tries again: “I will probe completely,” he promises. A mother passes him, her face twisted and inconsolable: “Probe your mother’s cunt. You certified that building as safe.”
The film is brief (about 40 minutes) and distressing, as the parents run up against one obstacle after another. Their questions recall those asked by some victims of 9/11 and many of Katrina. Even if no one can be expected to anticipate precise dimensions of a disaster, some preparations might be in place: walkie talkies that work, evacuation routes, solid constructions. The parents are turned away n he name of national interests (“Government officials,” reads an intertitle, “warn villagers that protesting is unpatriotic”), and warned not to talk to camera crews who mean to portray China in a bad light. They’re offered “compensation” ($8800 per lost child) in exchange for agreements not to protest, “to obey the law and maintain social order.”
No matter how close its framing of a despairing face or how wide its look at a demolished area, China’s Unnatural Disaster maintains a powerful focus on the complicated social and political relations producing continued distrust and helplessness. The peasants are without recourse, legal or economic. They understand the effects of publicity: “encouraged” by police to board buses rather than marching, they assert, “Marching creates a bigger impact,” and agree to ride only if they bring media on the buses with them.
Even when officials promise inspections of the buildings after the fact, one mother laments, “We don’t have the knowledge to judge what the government says. If they say the building met the standard, how can we insist otherwise?” Their stories are tragic, their ire justified. And their lives must go on.