Days after a devastating earthquake rocked the Sichuan Province in the central region of China on May 12, 2008, filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, along with their co-producers professors Peter Kwong and Ming Xia (who was born in Sichuan Province), were on a plane to make a documentary about the disaster for HBO. Still mulling story ideas on the flight, what they happened upon on their arrival is not something they could have scripted.
Nearly 70,000 people, including 10,000 children were killed, in town after town where poorly constructed school buildings crumbled, wiping out classrooms filled with students, most of them their parents’only child. At Fuxin Primary School, where 127 students died, families had placed framed photographs of dead boys and girls in a makeshift memorial next to the rubble, burning incense and symbolic paper currency to honor them.
China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, is a powerful and intimate record of the raw grief and anguish of these parents in their search for answers as to why their children died in shoddily constructed classrooms (referred to as “tofu construction” by one of the parents), while other buildings surrounding the piles of rubble still stood. “If children are the flowers of our country, is this where you plant them?” asks a mother in Fuxin, after seeing the fallen building’s bricks, dumbfounded by the lack of cement.
The lack of response from local officials caused parents to begin a 70-mile march to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. They start off full of resolve, jostling a Party Secretary and breaking through a line of police officers. Chants accusing officials of negligence and wrongful deaths abound. One woman recounts how, after being denied use of an overcrowded crematorium, she was forced to personally carry the body of her daughter home, first by motorcycle and then (when the bike stalled) by foot.
Seeking explanations and justice for their dead children, the grieving mothers and fathers are blocked by incompetence, corruption and empty promises. The filmmakers were detained for 8 hours prior to their departure from China. Having worked in China before, they had the foresight to have the tapes couriered to the States the day before. As the only voice for these parents, Alpert and O’Neill quietly allow their story to unfold in brilliant fashion.
CHINA’S UNNATURAL DISASTER: THE TEARS OF SICHUAN PROVINCE debuts Thursday, May 7 (8:00-8:45 p.m. ET/PT), just days before the first anniversary of the tragedy, on HBO.
Directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill; Produced by Jon Alpert, Peter Kwong, Michelle Mi, Matthew O’Neill & Ming Xia; Edited by Adam Barton; Editor & Colorist: John Custodio; Cinematography & Audio: Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
Thu 5/7 8:00-8:45pm HBO
Sat 5/9 4:15-5:00pm HBO2
Mon 5/11 4:30-5:15pm HBO2
Tue 5/12 7:45-8:30am HBO
Tue 5/12 11:00-11:40pm HBO
Thu 5/14 12:00-12:45pm HBOSIG
Sat 5/16 10:15-11:00am HBO
Mon 5/18 5:45-6:30pm HBO