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Opening Up To Reality
Beijing Review  |  February 7, 2007  |  By Li Li

Even if the nominated work fails to win her the first Oscar for a documentary made in China, CAMP's other PSAs and documentaries have already broken new ground in the country's AIDS awareness campaigns

Most filmmakers would be thrilled at the thought of being nominated for an Oscar. It's the golden statue that tells the world you've arrived. Yet for the director of The Blood of Yingzhou District, Yang Ziye, the idea of winning is of little meaning. She is more concerned about whether she is making a difference to the world around her.

Three days after The Blood of Yingzhou District was nominated for the 2007 Academy Awards in the documentary short subject category, the 49-year-old Yang began talking about her plans to retire from China AIDS Media Project (CAMP). The Beijing-based studio dedicated to producing public service announcements (PSAs) and documentaries promoting AIDS awareness and prevention, CAMP's productions are broadcast widely in China.

"I will spend one more year shooting PSAs, and then move aside to let other promising Chinese filmmakers take over," said the American Chinese animation expert and founder of CAMP. Yang had a blossoming career in documentary making in the United States until she found a new interest in promoting AIDS awareness through her films in the most populous country in 2004.

Actually, a string of achievements Yang achieved in the last three years with CAMP means she can leave the industry with her head held high, whatever happens. Even if the nominated work fails to win her the first Oscar for a documentary made in China, CAMP's other PSAs and documentaries have already broken new ground in the country's AIDS awareness campaigns.

CAMP pulls no punches

In October 2004, CAMP initiated the first major AIDS public-awareness campaign on Chinese television by launching a PSA featuring Chinese NBA (National Basketball Association) player Yao Ming and Magic Johnson, the retired basketball superstar who has been living with HIV since 1991. In the one-minute video clip, one scene shows the Chinese star center teaching Johnson how to use chopsticks while the two are sharing a meal of Chinese food together. Before the airing of the PSA, the most die-hard misconception on the transmission of AIDS in the country was that people could get the disease by eating together with an HIV positive person, as they would with those who have other contagious diseases.

During China's 2004-2005 basketball broadcast season, the NBA distributed these AIDS-awareness ads to its 14 broadcast partners throughout China to an audience estimated to be 100 million strong. Throughout 2005 and 2006, this PSA has been broadcast in buses, train carriages and railway stations to reach the floating population, which is most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, especially rural laborers migrating to cities in search of jobs.

In CAMP's first documentary titled Julia's Story, a young university student named Julia became the first person to go on Chinese airwaves to explain that she had contracted the HIV virus through sexual contact with her American boyfriend. The 28-minute personal profile is one of the most candid discussions of pre-marital sex and its health consequences on Chinese TV screens, as the girl uses her real name and voice and shows her face. The documentary has been aired on China Central Television, the national TV network and dozens of local TV stations. The director Yang, who had worried that government officials might not like in-your-face style, was surprised when permission was granted to air the show. "It is really a breakthrough," Yang said.

Powerful documentary

But no project under CAMP has been more emotionally demanding and rewarding to its cast and crew as The Blood of Yingzhou District.

The short movie splices footages of a small-format camera, which has tracked the life of six orphans who lost their parents to AIDS in Yingzhou, Anhui Province, for a year. Some rural areas in this province were subjected to underground blood collection in the 1990s, which caused a manmade catastrophe of rampant AIDS transmission among poor farmers, unbeknown to the community. The 39-minute movie demonstrated that the stigmas of the disease and the financial burden of getting medical treatment destroy the traditional close family ties and make the AIDS orphans--the healthy and the infected alike--even more miserable.

Gao Jun, a toddler featured in The Blood of Yingzhou District, was infected with the virus through mother to child transmission during pregnancy. The baby became dumb after the death of his parents. But nobody cared whether he spoke or not. His grandmother, who lived with the orphan and suffered from great depression from the death of her beloved son, could hardly keep the baby properly fed and clothed.

In the documentary, Gao displays none of the traits of a child his age. In one scene, he kicks a pig raised by the family, the only playmate he has, with a hatred in his eyes far too fierce for one so young. After Gao's grandmother dies, his closest surviving kin--his two uncles--are supposed to take in the young boy as Chinese tradition demands. But each uncle wrestles with a dilemma. The older uncle thinks about the consequences of Gao playing with his own children and how they will be ostracized by terrified neighbors. The younger uncle is worried that as long as Gao remains in his house, he will struggle to find a wife.

At one point, Gao is adopted by a couple who are HIV-positive. Under the loving care of his foster parents, the baby speaks his first word in front of the camera. "I'll hit you," he blurts out, joyfully running after the son of the foster family, who is years older than him. One scene features the young boy in the arms of his foster father on the way to welcome his daughter back from school. Rape flowers in hand, Gao repeats word after word what his foster father tells him, "Sister, I want to give you flowers." Yet as Gao blooms in the love of his new family, his happiness is short-lived. He becomes so sick that the foster family is forced to give him up and the audience last sees him walking away down a dirt road.

Fourteen-year-old AIDS patient Ren Nannan, was shunned by relatives and lived with her healthy elder sister "Little Flower" without adult supervision after their parents died from AIDS. Unable to bear the stigma associated with the disease, Ren's sister leaves home to seek employment without informing Nan'nan, which breaks the young girl's heart. Although Ren's health takes a turn for the better after she begins a course of AIDS medication, nothing means more to her than when "Little Flower" returns home for her wedding.

Ren's story reaches its climax on "Little Flower's" wedding day. Against a backdrop of practical jokes played by Ren, "Little Flower," who intentionally conceals Ren's HIV status from her in-laws, is tortured inside by the decision she has made to once again leave her sister.

Making a difference

Yang had the idea of doing a personal film on AIDS orphans in China in late 2002, and only managed to secure funding to get it started in 2004, when she and her colleague Thomas Lennon [the producer of The Blood of Yingzhou District] were on the verge of giving up.

Although The Blood of Yingzhou District is CAMP's first effort to reach an international audiences, Yang wants to get a very simple message through to foreign and Chinese audiences alike: to ask people to discard the stigmas associated with AIDS and give more care to the AIDS orphans in China.

"The blood in the title has a double meaning," said Yang, who gave the film its title. "The movie is about blood relationships: even your own relatives would shun you [if you were infected] due to the stigma and prejudice against the disease. The second meaning is that children got the disease through blood during mother-to-child transmission."

Handling several media projects on AIDS at the same time, Yang could only find time for one field trip to Yingzhou. When she witnessed the living conditions, it tore her apart.

She described the experience of being led to the house of the Huang family, which once was a happy home to five people, before AIDS took the life of the parents about three months ago.

"It was full of empty medicine bottles and worn out toys, and children's scribbles covered the walls. But it was the smell--the smell of death--that had a deep impact on me," Yang said.

Yang's tight schedule has left the fieldwork entirely to the hired Chinese film crew, notably Beijing cinematographer Qu Jiangtao. He said the shooting experience, which consisted of over 10 visits to Yingzhou over a period of one year, has taught him how to deal with people living with HIV/AIDS.

He admitted the depression of seeing the harsh living conditions of AIDS orphans haunted him for a while, but he said he was happy to witness the change of people's attitudes and improvement of orphans' health conditions during the course of the year. The first time he ate together with a family living with HIV/AIDS he felt uneasy, despite understanding how the disease is spread. Towards the end of his shooting, he became a "big brother" to Ren Nannan, and often played with her.

"It is silly that some people suggest a daily shower can avoid the risk of being infected with the AIDS virus, as particles of the disease fall on people's skin," said Qu commenting on an online post he saw recently.

Yang said during her three-year-stay in Beijing, she has spotted a positive change of public attitude towards AIDS, both in big cities and in the countryside. "All sorts of media are talking about not to discriminate against people living with HIV/AIDs," she said. "But China is a huge place and there is still a lot of work to be done."

The latest development for children in the documentary is that four children featured in the documentary, with another11 AIDS orphans from different provinces, visited Premier Wen Jiabao's office at his invitation on World AIDS Day, December 1.

Controversies rising

Yang and Qu admire each other's meticulous working styles, but they said they have had severe differences about editing the documentary.

"I have shot material of over 70 hours, which is long enough to be edited into a five-hour documentary series. A lot of good material has been wasted in the process of making this 39-minute version," complained Qu Jiangtao.

Qu also found Yang's editing hard to understand. Different from his former directors and editors who favor more scenic shooting on a tripod, Yang selected not-so-beautiful close-up scenes he took with a hand held camera. Her confidence in her editing ability partly comes from her Hong Kong background and many years spent in the U.S., which puts her in a good position to understand the mindset of both eastern and western culture.

Although the documentary had its world premiere last June, it hasn't yet been seen by a wide Chinese audience. Xiong Lei, a retired senior health care reporter from Xinhua News Agency, is one of earliest Chinese viewers. She watched the documentary last August when it was screened to journalists participating in an HIV/AIDS media training program prior to the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. Despite the documentary's distinctions of winning an Oscar nomination and the Grand Jury Award at Silverdocs Documentary Festival in the U.S., Xiong says she doesn't like the documentary.

Xiong, who has covered incidents of AIDS orphans for years, questioned the overall credibility of the documentary. Her argument is that the documentary quotes a singular information source--a businesswoman-turned-philanthropist, Zhang Ying. "It seems to me that the documentary intends to give publicity to Zhang although the cast have repeatedly said that they are trying to depict a social problem," wrote Xiong Lei on her blog.

Zhang, who founded and runs the non-governmental Fuyang AIDS Orphan Salvation Association, specialized in supporting children affected by AIDS, has earned herself national fame as "mother of AIDS orphans." A report on the nation's influential Southern Weekly newspaper in December 2005 questioned Zhang's integrity in her unsupervised use of raised funds.

Yang Ziye said she was introduced to Zhang by accident in 2004. Zhang gave the film crew access to orphans under her aid programs. Zhang's presence with the film crew helped to earn the trust of local farmers.

"As filmmakers, we don't feel it is our role to endorse or promote any particular organization devoted to orphan care," said Yang. While Zhang has not been identified during the documentary, Yang has listed the contact information of Zhang's organization with that of three other organizations involved in orphan care in China at the end of every film screening. "We have many letters from our overseas audiences who want to help the children in the film," she said.