Painful mem­o­ries of earth­quake re­lived

Young film­maker shows com­mu­nity’s at­tempt to cope af­ter dev­as­tat­ing, 2008 Sichuan tem­blor, re­ports.


Amost heart-rend­ing mo­ment in One Child, a doc­u­men­tary film by Mu Zi­jian, came when the hero­ine Gu Ji­azhen knelt in front of a Bud­dha fig­ure and pleaded: “Fam­ily love is in vain, par­adise is the only solid hope. God, please let my hus­band and daugh­ter have a good life over on the other side.” All the while she was chok­ing on her tears.

Gu had lost her fam­ily in the mag­ni­tude-8 Sichuan earth­quake, which had left more than 80,000 peo­ple dead or miss­ing seven years ago. Gu comes from Be­ichuan county, one of the ar­eas that suf­fered the most. The 57-year-old had had an only daugh­ter.

That di­vin­ity- in­vok­ing, plain­tive cry, as well as oth­ers in the 40-minute film, had come out of Mu’s four-month stay with three fam­i­lies in Be­ichuan, also his home­town. The fam­i­lies lost their only chil­dren in the tragedy. The sub­jects are his rel­a­tives and ac­quain­tances. In the calamity that shat­tered nearly ev­ery fam­ily there (it took half of the pop­u­la­tion), Mu had lost his grand­fa­ther and his young cousin, an only child.

The film, ded­i­cated to his cousin, last year was a fi­nal­ist for an Os­car for Best Doc­u­men­tary Short at the 87th Academy Awards. It also won the Stu­dent Academy Awards Bronze Medal for Best Doc­u­men­tary in 2014. Since its re­lease, dis­cus­sions and pro­pos­als on the group’s plight have grown.

“It’s be­yond my imag­i­na­tion what the film would have been like even just three years ago,” Mu, a fast-talk­ing, vol­u­ble 27-year-old told China Daily af­ter a re­cent screen­ing in Bei­jing.

Mu had ap­plied to the News and Doc­u­men­tary pro­gram at New York Uni­ver­sity in 2011 with a pro­posal to film his fel­low towns­men’s life af­ter the May 12, 2008 earth­quake, which was widely cov­ered in the news.

“But for all the cov­er­age, those who ex­pe­ri­enced the earth­quake are of­ten the pitied. Their sto­ries were of­ten told with­out their own voices,” Mu said.

Five years af­ter the tragic event, the town has re­lo­cated to a nearby area, with its sur­viv­ing res­i­dents now living in spa­cious, stream­lined block build­ings. Muddy roads have given way to four-lane roads as new, mod­ern in­fra­struc­ture has been set up.

“But the bet­ter your phys­i­cal sur­round­ings are, the more pain you feel in­side about the loss of a child,” Mu said.

In a so­ci­ety where fam­i­lies tend to in­vest ev­ery­thing and ev­ery hope in their only child, the next gen­er­a­tion is of­ten what par­ents live for.

“When the child is gone, ev­ery­thing is gone,” he said.

“My film is prob­a­bly good be­cause the sub­jects feel the re­spect for them. It shows not only their sad sit­u­a­tion but also the source and core of it,” Mu said. “It also showed their fight to come out of it.”

The three fam­i­lies filmed had tried to find so­lace in a sec­ond child, an adopted one or peace of mind from a new faith, all typ­i­cal choices for those who went through the same trauma. Not all were suc­cess­ful.

“If the doc­u­men­tary can re­ally help peo­ple, then it’s by get­ting their prob­lems known and find­ing so­lu­tions to them,” Mu said.

“The film is ex­cep­tional in that it looks at the group straight at eye level, in­stead of look­ing down,” Wu Bo­fan, pub­lisher of the do­mes­tic mag­a­zine 21st Cen­tury Busi­ness Re­view, said of the film: “As its name sug­gests, it also shows that peo­ple carry on even though they have to go through great hard­ship.”

A viewer sur­named Wang said: “The prob­lem, heavy and hard to speak of, comes to us in vivid images. It leads me to think about los­ing one’s only child, the af­ter­math and love that doesn’t go away.”

With a $1,000 bud­get, One Child was Mu’s first film and his grad­u­a­tion project. Even with the film done, his work with the group hasn’t stopped.

”If you film and go, you’re hurt­ing the peo­ple again be­cause you are not car­ing for them. It shows that you only care about the nat­u­ral dis­as­ter.”

He knew that from be­ing a cen­ter of me­dia at­ten­tion. Af­ter the earth­quake, 150 stu­dents from the af­flicted ar­eas in the quake, in­clud­ing Mu, were sent to the State Uni­ver­sity of New York for a year as ex­change stu­dents.

“I was a poster boy back then,” he said. “I used to be more in­tro­verted but had to re­ply again and again to ques­tions that weren’t al­ways care­ful of your feel­ings.

“So I know how good in­ten­tions can go awry.”

But that year at SUNY also led the stu­dent, who pre­vi­ously stud­ied in­ter­na­tional eco­nomics and trade, to doc­u­men­taries and ways of ex­pres­sion that changed his life.

“With that ex­pe­ri­ence, we all had some­thing to say,” Mu re­mem­bered. “But per­haps few were as in­tent on telling it as I was.”

Work­ing as a dig­i­tal me­dia spe­cial­ist, Mu now divides his time be­tween the United States and China. He’s still work­ing on doc­u­men­tary film projects and keep­ing a close watch on the county that went through a heavy blow and strug­gled with its con­se­quences.

“Even to­day, when you go around the town and meet peo­ple, you can’t help see­ing them with casualty num­bers on their heads,” Mu said. “You can’t get away from talk­ing about the past. It’s sad but also a way of life.

“I hope that peo­ple who watch the film will bet­ter un­der­stand the com­plex­i­ties and hard­ship in­volved in re­cov­er­ing from ex­treme tragedy.” Con­tact the writer at sunye@chi­

A scene

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