If revolution ever comes to China, it will probably start in Sichuan Province. That is because there are roughly twenty thousand parents there whose anger will not be bought off or otherwise placated without real justice. Such is the impression left by a recent HBO-produced documentary about the Chinese government’s maddening response to the “Great Sichuan Earthquake” of 2008. Recently, the Academy winnowed this year’s Oscar eligible short-form documentaries down to a shortlist of eight films. While most of the list is basically “eh,” Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (pop-up trailer here) deserves special consideration for a nomination and ultimately the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
Approximately 70,000 people died in the earthquake that rocked Sichuan, of which an estimated 10,000 were children. While the quake wrecked destruction throughout the province, schools and dormitories were particularly hard hit. In the immediate aftermath, shoddy government construction practices, like support walls made of loose bricks without any cohesive mortar, were apparent to even to the untrained eye. Parents wanted answers but were met with stonewalling by the local government and Communist Party.
It is always heartbreaking when a parent looses a young child, but the pain of the Sichuan parents runs even deeper, because of the Communist government’s rigid one-child policy. Those parents mourn not just a son or daughter, but their one sanctioned child.
At times, Disaster frankly feels intrusive as directors-cinematographers Alpert and O’Neill film the raw grief of the parents. However, the filmmakers bear witness to the injustice of the local authorities’ corruption and the courage of common people seeking justice. They name names too, like Party Secretary Jiang Guohua, seen literally trying to run to the front of the parade when Sichuan parents set off on a protest march.
The film is also an instructive look at all the Party’s methods for suppressing dissent, including telling attempts at outright intimidation. In fact, Alpert and O’Neill had their cameras cupped and were apparently physically jostled by Party enforcers several times. Clearly, the Communists were not keen to have a record of their response to the Sichuan protestors.
Disaster is a worthy and legitimate act of cinematic journalism. Though classified as a “short,” it is still a relatively substantial thirty-eight minutes in length. It will make viewers both profoundly sad and deeply angry. It is the class of the shortlisted documentary shorts. Disaster airs again on HBO in January and ought to be screening with other eventual nominees in the run up to the Award ceremony.