TV Preview: "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province" on HBO

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

TV news can be so chicken-hearted, or lily-livered, that viewers are warned when forthcoming pictures might possibly "disturb" them. Do many viewers really run from the room in panic, or hurry away to a silly rerun on another channel, when advised of harsh reality ahead? Should there be a category in the News Emmys for least disturbing report of the year -- and if so, what decent journalist would ever want to win it?

"China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province," an HBO documentary premiering tonight, is disturbing, indeed. Considering its brief running time of only 39 minutes, it might pack more power per moment of any documentary in recent memory. But you can learn, ponder and appreciate a great deal as you watch this stunning portrait in sorrow, loss and bureaucratic indifference. There are insights into ways Chinese culture differs from the Western world and ways it seems not only similar but also virtually universal.

When the deputy mayor of a province tells troubled, angry parents that they should "trust the government" and stop complaining, the absurd reverberations are all but deafening.

Filmmakers Jon Alpert (one of the truly brilliant masters of the genre) and Matthew O'Neill, who co-directed, wisely chose to use no narrator, letting the story be told mostly by the aggrieved citizens of an agrarian region victimized and traumatized twice -- first by nature at its cruelest, then by powers-that-be at their most callously disingenuous.

On Monday, May 12, 2008, as an on-screen caption tells us, Sichuan Province in China was struck by a devastating earthquake that killed 70,000 people -- 10,000 of them children, and many of those children crushed when their schoolhouses fell in on them. In the early stages, shot vividly on videotape, dazed parents walk down streets lined with rubble in search of missing children or mourning those who have been found, dead, in the wreckage. Many if not most of the parents carry large color photographs of their children to help locate them, or to show the world what has been tragically lost.

Because China limits most households to only one child, almost every student who died was an only child, leaving behind parents who must especially face a sudden, horrible emptiness in their lives.

One man carrying a photo of his young son boasts proudly: "He was so cute. He was the top student in four subjects." Another man stands outside the remains of a school and, through tears, shouts toward the building as if that will enable his dead son to hear him: "Your daddy misses you terribly!" The vignettes are devastatingly poignant -- a mother who plays a treasured phone message on which her little girl sings her a song, a father who holds up another phone with a photo of his little boy frozen in time.

To understand what she and her husband are feeling and share their aching sense of loss, one mother says into the camera, one must "come into our dreams." Another woman is similarly eloquent when she says of the tragedy, "This is a lesson of blood."

Those words signal a change in attitude -- from torturous grief to bitterness and anger over the "shoddy construction" of some of the schools that collapsed and what the parents see as official ineptitude when it came to inspecting the schools and making them safe. "The corrupt local officials are out of control," says one protesting parent; many join in a 70-mile march to the regional capital to express their outrage.

The government finds the march embarrassing and interrupts it with various delegations -- among them, that deputy mayor who pleads for trust in government and tells the marchers they are doing harm to "our image" in the world. Then a bus is sent in to carry the protesters the rest of the distance, making them a less potent subject for cameras. One cop puts not just his hand but also his whole arm over a camera's lens, the symbolic gesture that has become an international symbol of fascism, or at least of that mentality.

Some of the parents' grievances sound familiar, as when an angry mother shouts to a group of politicians, "You officials send your kids to elite schools!" The marchers are told it is "unpatriotic" to criticize the government; implicitly threatened, some of them take pains to say that they have no complaint with the Communist Party and that Beijing is just ducky with them.

Watching the film, one might deduce that there's an impressive new degree of press freedom in China. Not exactly. Alpert and O'Neill rushed their footage back to the United States by courier, according to HBO, as a preventive measure. Even so, before leaving the country themselves, they were detained for eight hours and questioned by local police -- cops who apparently didn't know that Alpert has demonstrated a stubborn fearlessness throughout his remarkable career, as evidenced in documentaries from such dangerous places as Iraq, Afghanistan and drug-infested inner cities.

Artful but never artsy, as direct and natural as a conversation with a friend, "Unnatural Disaster" is a uniquely powerful piece of work, typical of what we've come to expect from Sheila Nevins's documentary division of HBO but even more moving than most.

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (39 minutes) airs tonight at 8 on HBO.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company