U.S. Filmmakers Help Bring AIDS Out of the Shadows in China

Thomas Lennon produced and Ruby Yang directed the award-winning documentary
Thomas Lennon produced and Ruby Yang directed the award-winning documentary "The Blood of Yingzhou District," about AIDS orphans in China. (Courtesy Of Thomas Lennon/china Aid)
By Nora Boustany
Friday, June 23, 2006

Two Americans interested in the stigma that AIDS patients face in China started out on a filmmaking journey with goodwill and naivete and ended up with a haunting, award-winning documentary.

In "The Blood of Yingzhou District," director Ruby Yang and producer Thomas Lennon chronicle the sorrowful story of AIDS orphans in China and the experiences of a brave adult with HIV who was willing to step out of the shadows.

Lennon said that making the film was like "walking in the dark and trying to grab the banister. You start out on a project not knowing what you are going to do, and you find your way in the dark." But a lucky confluence of kindnesses and evolving government policy helped the filmmakers keep going.

The film premiered June 14 at the Silverdocs documentary festival in Silver Spring, where it won the coveted Grand Jury Prize.

Yang, now based in Beijing, said she wanted to focus on the "traditional stigmas and silences of Chinese family life" that she came across during her research for the film in the remote villages in Anhui province.

She found that grief, but also ignorance and fear, shaped the way orphaned children were treated. She also saw "the range of the children's experience: hurt, yes, but also anger, playfulness, mischief, longing and a fierce will to live."

A crucial advance was made when Jing Jun , a sociology professor at Xinhua University, introduced the filmmakers to Zhang Yin , a businesswoman who runs the Fuyang AIDS Orphans Salvation society, which helps children with the disease.

Zhang became interested in the care of children left destitute by their parents' deaths from AIDS when she began administering medicine sent from the United States to an infected 10-year-old girl. She later established the society, which is run on a shoestring budget and now helps 300 children.

Zhang gave the film crew access to children affected by the disease without risking government interference.

"It is difficult to make something like this in China," said Jing, the sociology professor. "It was quite remarkable to me that a local group involved allowed them to film the children."

In the film, a 14-year-old girl, Nannan Ren , is shunned by her relatives. Her story turns even more poignant when her sister, about to be married, concludes she may have to abandon her, too. A little boy, Gao Jun , loses his parents to AIDS and stops speaking, but he finds his voice at the end of the film. These stories and others helped break the code of silence about AIDS and dispel some of the misinformation about the disease.

Another important facilitator in the project was a Chinese journalist, Jiang Hua , whose magazine had published groundbreaking stories about AIDS in China. Jiang put the American film team in contact with a Chinese college student with HIV. The student, whom they called Julia, allowed them to film her before she decided whether to let them use the footage.

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