Saturday, March 14, 2009

[3rd Singapore Indie Doc Fest] China Indie Doc Focus: Session 1 - Who Killed Our Children?

The Substation has been running the 3rd Singapore Indie Doc Fest for almost a week now, and unfortunately I had missed a number of films which had piqued my interest, only managing one session today. You might also be glad to know that there are some slight improvements to the seats at the Guiness Theatre, where bright red cushions of the RITVA design (from Ikea) get to provide some much needed comfort for feature films, because your bum's not resting directly on a wooden seat.

Today's sessions and films were all curated by Professor Paul Pickowicz of UC San Diego, which boasts some more than 2000 films in its library of Chinese indie features and documentaries. Prof Paul did mention that not all are of similar quality, and in today's selection were 4 films which he felt were deserving of highlighting at today's session.

Just last year, China was rocked by one of the deadliest earthquakes in her history, where a magnitude 8.0 quake hit Sichuan, and besides the usual disastrous effects that come along with a major natural disaster, this one had reports streaming in with an uncharacteristically large number of children killed because the dormitories and schools they were housed in had all collapsed.

This documentary by Pan Jianlin, as explained by Dr Paul, was probably one of many where filmmakers had journeyed to the epicenter in search of human stories to tell. And I guess it is typical to find documentarians hitting the road and to the site of interest to document an important part of history, even if it's one filled with tragedy, but also with its fair share of survival stories. Heading into the epicenter of the Muyu distriict in Qingchuan County, the film had centered its findings and discoveries on just one of the many sites, with the collapse of the Muyu Middle School dormitory, where very early on, in moments of silence, we see a crumpled pile of stones and bricks where once stood the building structure.

When Mother Nature releases her wrath on earth, unfortunate victims usually do not stand a chance. Here, it seems that there are certain man-made elements which resulted and contributed to a higher than usual death toll, especially amongst children. There's the issue of the much touted shoddy construction job due to corruption, and what I didn't know was the very dangerous practice of locking doors. I can't help but to compare how even in Singapore this bad practice continues, where it's so easy to create death traps just because of somebody's negligence in looking for the easy way out, or to cut corners.

There are the usual finger pointing of course, and Pan interviews all sides of the equation, preferring to let the audience form their own conclusions from hesitant government officials, to the teachers and school principal, surviving students and the grieving parents. It poses some hard questions to which there are no easy answers to, and what I found to be peculiarly true, is that we also have similar attitudes displayed quite rampant and applicable to other countries as well, such as innate complacency, passing the buck, and the creation of one's own rules that may run contrary to established practices.

This documentary is like an investigative piece, with the director in journalist mode, constantly probing for answers or any clues as to what could constitute the truth amidst any attempts to cover up, and to sieve through the rumours which can spiral out of control depending on interpretation and hearsay from whom, given that the deceased can tell no tales.

It might not be a remarkable documentary technique wise with the use of many talking heads, but the content is more than sufficient to thoroughly engage you throughout. There was one arc in the second half that dwelled upon burial, and the insensitiveness of trying to, what I thought was, literally covering up evidence on the pretext of preventing an epidemic, and a botched attempt in accountability just made things worse. There's always a lot of disconnect between the authorities and common folk, in what is supposed to be done, against what is perceived to be done. Tempers flare and a lot of people are upset naturally, but one can see for all their bravado in wanting to demand justice, it's really quite left in the open whether or not they are successful in getting some reprieve.

The power of film at times is to bring you to places where you normally won't have access to for a myriad of reasons. Here, it is obvious that access got restricted as aid came in and got dried up, and with the media slowly being barred save for the official ones, there's a cap already on what can be seen in the aftermath. Even Pan got arrested and detained briefly for trying to re-enter the zone for additional follow up filming.

Should you have the opportunity to watch this film, don't pass it up, as besides bringing you a wide spectrum of the topic, it does reinforce the point of how inaction on all our part in doing what's right, would lead to severe repercussions if not acted upon swiftly.

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