China Expected To Leave Itself Out Of Oscars The film China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province is up for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category, but in China, all mention of the documentary has been censored. It's expected that China will omit that category when it airs the Oscars. Scott Simon speaks with the filmmakers of the documentary, which aired on HBO last year.

China Expected To Leave Itself Out Of Oscars

China Expected To Leave Itself Out Of Oscars

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The film China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province is up for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category, but in China, all mention of the documentary has been censored. It's expected that China will omit that category when it airs the Oscars. Scott Simon speaks with the filmmakers of the documentary, which aired on HBO last year.


Earthquakes - natural disasters have dominated the news this winter. But the earthquakes in Sichuan province in May of 2008 and the resulting collapse of a disproportionate number of school buildings there - by some accounts an unnatural disaster, Chinas Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province" is an HBO documentary that follows victims' families as they demand accountability for what they believe was inadequate construction of those schools. The film was one of five nominated for best documentary short category at this years Academy Awards. Chinas Unnatural Disaster is 39 minutes of utter heartbreak.

The film is filled with beautiful faces, faces of the children, smiling out from picture frames that each parents clutches to their chest, faces of the parents tear-stained, anguished and exhausted. The film was blocked from being aired in China and the words unnatural disaster have been removed from the title on Chinese Internet mentions. And when the Oscars are broadcast tomorrow night, its possible that China will censor all mention of this documentary. The makers of the film, Jon Alpert and Matthew ONeill, now join us from NPR West. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JON ALPERT (Director): Hi, Scott. Thank you.

Mr. MATTHEW ONEILL (Director): Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Jon, Matthew, how was news of an Oscar nomination covered in China? Do you know?

Mr. ONEILL: Well, it was covered quite nicely except for ours; they just removed the all mention of it. It was like we didn't exist.

SIMON: I guess you can block it out these days from all broadcast, all Internet mention?

Mr. ONEILL: You can well, you cant block out the Internet completely, and what was interesting is the parents these are basically peasants in a remote section of Sichuan and their parents had lost their children in the school. The school collapsed when all the other buildings in the town stood. The parents knew about our nomination, they heard about it on the Internet...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ONEILL: ...and they're pretty excited because they think that this might get some further recognition for their struggle to find out what happened to their children and theyre fighting for justice even today.

SIMON: Hmm. So they seemed confident that maybe the news cant continue to be suppressed?

Mr. ALPERT: I think confident might be an overstatement. I think theyre hopeful that this film can add more pressure for a formal investigation. The film keeps on being posted on YouTube and on BitTorrent. And every time the Chinese government takes it down or blocks access to the sites, it pops up someplace else.

SIMON: Did you have any problems making this documentary?

Mr. ONEILL: We actually thought we got into China too late. The genesis of our project actually came from NPR and those haunting, horrific stories of the first days of the earthquake. And Sheila Nevins from HBO heard those stories and said, guys, will you please get in on a plane and go over to Sichuan? But when we got there, the clean-up was in progress. NPRs reporters were leaving. And we thought that we had missed the story.

But we were driving down a road one day, in basically the middle of nowhere, and coming in the other direction was a long line of mothers and fathers, each one clutching the photograph of their dead child. And they had been waiting for the government to answer their questions, and after a week they finally said, hey, if we have to march all the way to Beijing, we're going to get answers. And thats how we discovered the parents of the Fuxin School and thats basically what our story is about.

SIMON: There's an old argument among journalists as to how much good journalism can actually do people, sometimes. I mean, we give each other awards and people in the Academy Awards give each other awards. But youve made such an important film; well, it raises the question - how much can a film like this do?

Mr. ALPERT: Its hard to say. We believe in an abstract sense that shedding light on a situation and trying to show the truth will bring pressure and clarity and try to empower the people who are fighting for justice over in Sichuan Province. But the reality is, is that the attention in the American media or in the international media may have no bearing whatsoever on the decision-making of the Chinese government.

In fact, it may even have a negative effect. We dont know. But were hopeful that by bringing more attention to this, pressure will be borne to bear on the government for a full investigation.

SIMON: Do you have any idea of what will happen when your category is announced at the Oscars? Whats going to happen in China?

Mr. ONEILL: I dont know about in China but Im going to start sweating, Scott. And, you know, Im going to be weighted down with all these good luck charms that I have. Ive got lucky T-shirts and the parents have asked if we'd carry the photographs of their children under our coats. And so I dont think these things are decided by luck, and all the films are really, really good. But the parents are basically saying they're going to be waiting around holding their breath and hoping that we're going to win, because then it will be a win for them and their children.

SIMON: Jon, you are going to carry those pictures?

Mr. ALPERT: Yeah, Im going to carry them, Im not going to beholding them up, Scott. Were carrying the parents thoughts and we are carrying those kids in our hearts with us. We talk to the parents all the time. We call them every month or so. We want to make sure that none of our activities associated with the films are harming them in any way. And they just keep on giving us atta-boys and hoping that more people can see the film and more people will talk about this. They want their country to be a better place and they hope that what happened to them will never happen to any other parents in China or any place else.

SIMON: Jon Alpert and Matthew ONeill, thanks so much.

Mr. ALPERT: Thank you, Scott. Appreciate it.

Mr. ONeill: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: Their film Chinas Unnatural Disaster is up for an Oscar tomorrow night.

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