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IN THE NEWS

Agony of the AIDS orphans
China Daily  |  Beijing Weekend / Movies  |  page 06
December 22, 2006  |   By Chen Nan

Gao Jun is an orphan. And aged just two to three years old (no-one knows his exact age) he is also an outcast. HIV-positive and with both his parents dead from AIDS he is shunned by everyone around him. People living in the remote village in East China's Anhui Province, where he lives, including some of his relatives, won't go near him, mistakenly fearing they could catch the deadly virus.

Gao is a central character in The Blood of Yingzhou District, a documentary by Hong Kong-born filmmaker Ruby Yang and award-winning producer Thomas Lennon, about an epidemic that has so far orphaned 75,000 children throughout China.

Just 39 minutes long, the film is one of eight listed for the short documentary section of next year's Oscars.

It received the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Washington, DC and has so far been screened at 13 film festivals across the world.

"It's a very quietly stunning film," said Nina Gilden Seavey, director of Silverdocs' "Docs Rx" offerings. "You look for movies that tell a deep story that is unexpected. This one does."

The filmmakers tell their tale from the mouths of children turned pariahs in four villages in Anhui. "People bore an incredible sadness about a disease that was everywhere," Yang said. "The villagers knew Gao Jun was sick but he was neglected and ignored. He lived like an animal." Gao's parents, like many other farmers, fell victim to AIDS after donating their blood to earn a bit of money.

"I'd encountered this during the making of other documentaries," said Yang. "With the help of the local charity founder Zhang Ying, I was able to gain the trust of the children and their extended families so that they could open up to tell their stories. With Zhang's help, the filmmakers not only talked to the orphaned children but also got to quiz officials about the scope of the AIDS virus.

Yang and Lennon are founders of the China AIDS Media Project, an ambitious new effort to bring disease prevention to a country that only in recent years has acknowledged its AIDS epidemic. In 2004, they wrote and edited the first major AIDS prevention campaign to air on Chinese mainland television.

What Yang saw broke her heart, especially when she entered the home where the children lived alone. "There was this smell of death," she said. "There was so much poverty. The experience of meeting the children, seeing their helplessness, and hearing their stories has stayed with me."

"The stories of the children were heartbreakingly sad; we had to find that balance where you don't overwhelm the audience or drive them away, yet at the same time keep the power of the narrative," said Yang. "Also, maintaining emotional distance was difficult. For months, I wouldn't give up certain stories even though I kind of knew they slowed the film down. Tom would fly in and we'd have screaming matches over cutting the film down."

Gao Jun's two uncles grapple over the orphan's future. The older uncle knows that if he allows his children to play with Gao Jun, they will also be isolated by neighbours terrified by infection. The younger uncle's choice is no easier: his association with the boy will make it harder to find a wife.

But the film also shows the children's fierce determination to survive. In one scene, the children resolve to become educated as a way to one day better their tormentors. "I hate being looked down upon," the boy said. "One day I will surpass them all."

After their project premiered before an international audience in Washington, the filmmakers say they hope the documentary gets its airing in China as well.

"There weren't any reactions from the audience that I didn't expect," said Yang. "But 90 per cent of the audience wanted to know about the fate of the children in the film."

Gao Jun, the boy at the heart of the film, is now on medication and his health has improved significantly, according to Yang. He has also been moved to the home of an elderly couple who have lost their two sons and one daughter-in-law to AIDS, and they are believed to be taking good care of him. He started kindergarten in the fall.

But nobody can be sure what the future will hold for Gao, or for Nan Nan, the other central character also living with HIV/AIDS.

"All we know is that they are no longer shunned by the villagers and Nan Nan's relatives are no longer afraid to be with her," Yang said.



http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bjweekend/2006-12/21/content_764493.htm