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 firstname.lastname@example.org