New Documentary Revisits Deadly 2008 Earthquake In China The earthquake that hit China in 2008 claimed 70,000 lives, many of them children. Grief turned to anger as many parents realized that the children lost their lives in school buildings that just collapsed the result of poor construction. Those stories are the focus of a new HBO documentary titled China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, which has earned an Oscar nomination. Guest host Lynn Neary speaks with filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neil about the film and why it has angered the Chinese government.
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New Documentary Revisits Deadly 2008 Earthquake In China

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New Documentary Revisits Deadly 2008 Earthquake In China

New Documentary Revisits Deadly 2008 Earthquake In China

New Documentary Revisits Deadly 2008 Earthquake In China

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The earthquake that hit China in 2008 claimed 70,000 lives, many of them children. Grief turned to anger as many parents realized that the children lost their lives in school buildings that just collapsed the result of poor construction. Those stories are the focus of a new HBO documentary titled China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, which has earned an Oscar nomination. Guest host Lynn Neary speaks with filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neil about the film and why it has angered the Chinese government.


I'm Lynn Neary and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

On May 12, 2008, Sichuan province of China was literally shaken to its foundations by a devastating earthquake. When the dust settled, 70,000 people had been killed, 10,000 of them children. What made that loss even more heartbreaking for the parents was that many of those lost were their only children, a consequence of China's one-child policy. But anger was added to grief as many suspected that official corruption played a major role in those deaths. Much of the reason so many children lost their lives was that school buildings with shoddy construction collapsed at alarming rates, even as neighboring buildings remained standing.

NPR's own Melissa Block tapped into that story as she covered the quake's aftermath in 2008.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MELISSA BLOCK: You're saying that the - this building was poorly constructed. You're saying that the person who was in charge of quality control for the building of the school took bribes, and the material used was not of good quality.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: A man has just rushed up with a little piece of cement from - he says it's from the pillar and he broke it in half with his fingers to show how soft it is and how unable it was to withstand the force of this earthquake. And I just broke it in half with my fingers.

NEARY: The sadness and rage prompted many grieving parents to demand that the corrupt officials beheld accountable for the deaths. Their story was captured in the film, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province." Produced by HBO, that film has earned an Oscar nomination in the documentary short film category. But it has also earned the ire of the Chinese government, which has banned the filmmakers from returning to the country and is censoring coverage of its Oscar bid.

Joining us to talk more about it are Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill. They're the team that wrote and directed "China's Unnatural Disaster," and they join us now from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JON ALPERT (Writer, Director, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province"): Hi. Thanks a lot for asking us to be here. We really appreciate it.

Mr. MATTHEW O'NEILL (Writer, Director, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province"): Absolutely. We're really happy to be here. Thanks.

NEARY: Let me start with you, Jon. First of all, how did the two you get into China to film this documentary?

Mr. ALPERT: We went, ostensibly as tourists, but tourists with our camera and we arrived in Sichuan 10 days after the earthquake.

NEARY: And did you have any trouble getting in at that point, or there wasn't a problem at that point?

Mr. ALPERT: No, actually not. I think that if we would have waved our hands in the air and said, hi, we're reporters and we're interested in reporting, we might have had some difficulty. But we just got in the car and drove up to the earthquake zone. And it was on our second day there that we saw something absolutely extraordinary. And this was a long line of men and women, basically in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, walking slowly down the road. And each person was carrying an 8x10 photograph of their dead child, a child that had been buried when the Fuxin School collapsed.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. ALPERT: This was a school in a town where all the other buildings withstood the earthquake, but the school was flattened and all the kids were killed.

NEARY: That, I think, is what there's so extraordinary about your footage. And Matthew, I wanted to ask you - that footage where you see that just the school had collapsed and everything around it is still standing. I didn't quite understand, until I saw that, what the situation was.

Mr. O'NEILL: And I think that's the image that haunts the parents, even to this day. And we heard, you know, not just in Fuxin, but in town after town that we're visiting, stories of places where the schools collapsed and other buildings stood. And I think it's important to recognize that some parts of Sichuan were just absolutely devastated by the earthquake and every building collapsed. But in town after town, it was the schools that collapsed while other buildings stood.

NEARY: And Matthew, I have to say that a lot of the footage in this film is really heartbreaking. How did you even begin to talk to these parents?

Mr. O'NEILL: Well, it's a really interesting challenge, because neither Jon nor I speak Mandarin, much less the Sichuan dialect. Working with us were producers Michelle Mi, Peter Kwong, and Ming Xia. And Ming is actually from Sichuan, originally, and he spoke the dialect. And I think that was a large part of why we were able to interact and connect with people so quickly. But also in this sort of intense, emotional environment, people make snap decisions, as far as trust goes. And you see many times in the film where the parents will beckon to the camera and motion us to board the buses with them or come and see something else. And I think that despite the language barriers, there was something about what we were trying to do that the parents connected to. They understood that they could trust us with their story.

NEARY: Jon, what did you hear from these parents about their children's deaths and the official response to what had happened?

Mr. ALPERT: Well, the stories were really heartbreaking. The earthquake occurred in the afternoon when their children were in school. Many of them had basically come back in from recess. They were all in their classrooms when the buildings collapsed. And the kids were calling out from underneath the rubble on their cell phones to their mothers and fathers, please come save us, save us.

And the local officials ignored the calls of the parents for help. There was a pretty impressive mobilization, especially of the Chinese army. And the army was coming through Sichuan, often with heavy equipment. But in many of these towns, the local officials didn't call the army and they're sort of used to not going up the chain of command. They want to be ignored and so their usual answer is hey, everything is fine here. I got it under control.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. ALPERT: They didn't have it under control. And the kids died. In many cases they probably could've been saved.

NEARY: And in more than one case, parents told you that they could hear their children in the rubble.

Mr. ALPERT: They could hear their children and...

Mr. O'NEILL: I think the part that was devastating was really telephone calls that came out of the rubble. And they weren't able to reach them but they were able to call and beg for help.

NEARY: And, Matthew, these local officials, not only did they seem unprepared for, you know, the level of rage of the parents but they seemed kind of terrified of the parents going to higher authorities and telling them what was happening. We're going to listen to a short clip of tape. And this is a confrontation between police and parents who are marching toward the regional capital in a protest and a local official gets involved.

(Soundbite of documentary, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province")

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

NEARY: Jon, maybe you can describe for us what's happening during this scene.

Mr. ALPERT: Well, there's a tradition in China of petitioning to a higher authority. It started in the old days with the emperor. And it was believed that if you could get yourself an audience with the emperor that perhaps your problems would be addressed even if the local officials were ignoring you. And this is what the parents were trying to do. They really sort of didn't know exactly where they were going but they wanted somebody to pay attention to them.

And there's an incredible scene in the film of the local communist party official kowtowing. He's down on his hands and knees in front of the marchers, begging them to stop, trying to get them to go back to the village, doing everything he can to cut off this march. And the parents basically said lookit, you've ignored us now for a week. We've been begging you for some answers. You've ignored us. We want answers. Get out of our way.

They also came out with the police. As the march progressed, more and more army, police and other people tried to stop the march and more people began to come to the side of the road. And at probably around mile 20, I would say there were thousands of people there. There were the marchers, there were the officials and there were people who were just listening to the heartbreaking stories of the parents, crying along with the parents as the parents told what happened to their kids.

NEARY: When I was watching that scene I couldn't help but wonder, what was this official so afraid of? He seemed terrified of the notion that they were going to get to the regional capital and tell people there what was going on. Matt, what do you think?

Mr. O'NEILL: I think that he was probably afraid of exactly what the parents were marching for, which is accountability. They want someone to be held responsible. They want an investigation. That's their primary demand even today. You know, it's been almost two years since the earthquake - it'll be two years in May - and there has not been that accounting that the parents demand.

And we're in touch with them on a regular basis, trying to understand how their lives are going, what's changing. They're thrilled that this film is gaining more attention through the Academy Award nomination. Some of them have actually seen it because it's been pirated and posted on YouTube and BitTorrent and things like that by human rights activists. So they've seen the film. They like the film. And they hope that it'll bring pressure to bear and a real investigation.

NEARY: If you're just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. And we are talking about the Oscar-nominated documentary short film "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province." I'm speaking with filmmakers Matthew O'Neill and Jon Alpert.

Matthew, one other thing I wanted to ask you about the film before we get to the Oscar controversy, I was surprised also to see that some of the villagers seemed to be actually angry at the parents for, I guess, for bringing too much attention on the village, and maybe they were afraid that they were going to get in trouble with the authorities if these parents made too much noise. What was going on there?

Mr. O'NEILL: Towards the end of our time in Sichuan, the parents began getting visited at night by local officials, by basically what the parents called thugs associated with the local government, intimidating them, telling them that they should stop talking to the foreign media. That the foreign media would be gone tomorrow but that, you know, when - they would still be there, that these authorities would still be there.

And I think that that sort of intimidation came to bear on not just the parents who were marching and the parents who lost people, but to other people in Fuxin and other people around Sichuan, so that they didn't want the negative attention falling back onto them.

NEARY: Jon, now the two of you were actually detained at one point by the Chinese government, is that right? What happened there?

Mr. ALPERT: We did, coming out of buying souvenirs. We had gone to film what we thought would be the concluding scene of our film. And this was Children's Day. Children's Day was also the day that the parents had been promised a complete report of what had happened.

And when we got up to the school, there were more policemen there than there were parents. And, in fact, they were policemen who had previously threatened to arrest us. And so, we decided that this would be a very good time to end our filming and go back, make our plane reservations to leave and get souvenirs for everybody who had been supporting us in New York. And so, we were coming out of the tea shop when, gosh, it was almost like in a horror movie - boing, boing, boing. We were surrounded by 35 secret police who basically said, you're coming with us. And we wound up at the police station being interrogated for eight hours.

NEARY: Matthew, let's talk about what's going on in terms of the Chinese government trying to deflect attention, shall we say, from the Oscar nomination. What are some of the tactics they're using to keep people in China sort of in the dark about this film and the nomination?

Mr. O'NEILL: Oh, obviously we haven't been in China to see this for ourselves. Unfortunately, when we last applied for visas those visas were denied. So, we haven't seen this with our own eyes. But the reporting that's come out has said that the nominations for the Academy Awards were actually censored this year in China, and that in some cases they removed the documentary-short-subject category entirely in the print edition of major Chinese newspapers. In other cases, they removed the film itself. And even other cases they changed the title so it just said "China's Natural Disaster" instead of "China's Unnatural Disaster." And our understanding from talking to colleagues who are over there is that there's an extreme level of sensitivity about this - about the earthquake and the possibility of wrongful deaths and the possibility of accountability.

NEARY: Will they show the Oscar ceremonies there? Do you know whether they're going to try and censor that in any way?

Mr. ALPERT: This is Jon. Up to this particular point, it appears that they've done many things in order to try and bottle this up and to keep our film, and news about our film, from the Chinese public in general. There has actually been sort of a blog war that the BBC reported about, in which they discovered that the Chinese government had erected a number of sites to attack the film and were paying 50 cents for each blogger to post negative comments. But they became so overwhelmed with people who thought that this was a good film that they took these sites down. It appears that despite all these efforts that the word of the film and the film itself is leaking all over China. And it's really exciting to talk to parents - peasant people in the countryside who have seen the film and really like it.

NEARY: How are people seeing it?

Mr. ALPERT: Internet. What was really quite exciting and unexpected were the hundreds of people who were following the march, holding their cell phone cameras...


Mr. ALPERT: ...recording this, obviously sending this to other people, local college kids in media classes filming this. It was a proliferation of independent media. And I think that's one reason why the Chinese government came down so hard on this because there was a time there when the people were in charge. And I think that that was a difficult situation.

NEARY: Matthew, do you know if any of the people who appeared in the film have suffered repercussions?

Mr. O'NEILL: They've not suffered repercussions because of the film itself. But there has been a very steady and nuanced intimidation campaign against their ongoing efforts to get justice for their children. One of the leaders of the group of parents, who was a leader in the lawsuit against the local government - everything seemed to be moving forward with the lawsuit. And then when the whole group of parents showed up for their day in court, the leader wasn't there. And the judge then threw out the case because they needed to have every single person who had signed on to that lawsuit in the room.

And it turned out, when they went back to find out why this leader hadn't shown up, it was because he was too busy with his new construction contracts that came from the local government, so that he wasn't able to show up in court that day. He had too much work to do.

When the parents tried to go to Beijing to petition the central government -again, I think there's a belief that they can get some sort of justice from the central government that they can't get from their local government. They've been detained and harassed, specifically the group of parents from Fuxin -tried to go to the trial in Chengdu of a human rights activist that was working with parents around Sichuan to caveat an official accounting, and when they showed up to bear witness at that trial, they were detained for the totality of the trial and then bused back to Fuxin.

NEARY: Do you think there's anything your film can do to help the families who are trying to get justice?

Mr. O'NEILL: That's why you make these type of films, is that you hope that somehow or other they will benefit society, whether it's our society here in New York or whether it's our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. And to some degree, we have the honor of doing this type of work. When we wake up in the morning, when we're filming, when we're in the editing room, when these things are in movie theaters, there's the possibility that good things can come from this.

I think in this particular category this year, in the short documentaries, almost all the documentaries fit into that category. They're looking at workers who are losing their job because their factory is closing down. They're looking at people who have terminal illness who are fighting. And I think that especially in the documentary category they - there's a recognition that this is an important tool in helping people improve their lives.

NEARY: Matthew O'Neill and Jon Alpert are the directors of, "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province." The film has been nominated for an Oscar as Best Documentary Short Subject. They both joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thanks to both of you.

Mr. O'NEILL: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Mr. ALPERT: Really appreciate it. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: And that's our program for today. I'm Lynn Neary and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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