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Helping AIDS Orphans – Film maker targets stigma
Shanghai Daily | February 12, 2007 | By Xu Wei

A documentary on China's AIDS orphans has been nominated for an Oscar. Film maker Ruby Yang says she hopes that airing the film in China soon will help reduce the stigma against innocent children who are shunned, writes Xu Wei.

Ruby Yang is very low-key, so much so that she almost declined this interview, although her latest documentary film "The Blood of Yingzhou District" was nominated for Best Documentary Short in this year's 79th Academy Awards.

The talented Hong Kong director is preparing for the gala Oscar night on February 25.

The documentary was screened during a film festival last June in the United States to great acclaim, although it has not yet been released in China. But Yang says airing on Chinese television is considered extremely important, and she will start the official application process right after the Oscar ceremony.

Touched by Shanghai Daily's wish to help raise public awareness about AIDS prevention, Yang and producer Thomas Lennon agreed to an exclusive interview. She expressed her burning passion for the project and a deep sympathy for AIDS orphans.

Q: As a documentary filmmaker who has explored a range of Chinese themes, what made you decide to focus on the AIDS-prevention campaign since 2003? What inspired you to shoot "The Blood of Yingzhou District?"

Yang: We were determined to do a documentary on AIDS in China and trying different avenues. A key adviser was a scholar called Jing Jun, a professor at Tsinghua University. He told us of a private charity group in Anhui Province and that was the key introduction that opened the first doors.

Lennon: The idea had been percolating for a while. Ruby and I wrote and edited a series called "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience" - a Bill Moyers series that aired on public television in the spring of 2003.

And to keep ourselves sane under very tough deadlines, we'd talk about what we wanted to do next. Ruby said she wanted to do a film about AIDS in China. I said, if you do this, we have to try to get it on the air in China - that's the audience for whom watching is a matter of life and death. But that's how the broader China AIDS Media Project was born, of which this film is a part.

Q: You followed these orphans in the rural villages of Yingzhou District for one year. Was there anything special and challenging in this filming?

Yang: In China, I found it difficult to talk openly about one's personal life. I've encountered this during the making of my other documentaries and "Blood" is even harder because of the subject matter and all the stigma associated with AIDS.

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. Maintaining emotional distance was difficult.

Q: What moved you most?

Yang: The 14-hour train ride from Beijing to the villages of Anhui was like a journey back in time: fields fallow in the winter cold, earthen gravesites visible through the stubble, fishermen at the riverbanks. If you forget the telephone poles, you can imagine yourself a century back in time - a time when disease had the power to strike incomprehensible terror into the lives of farming families.

The three Huang children, orphaned by AIDS, led me to their family home. It was full of empty medicine bottles and old toys, and children's scribbles covered the walls. But it was the smell - the smell of death - that had a deep impact on me.

It was something that couldn't be captured in a documentary. But what could be captured was the range of the children's desires and feelings: hurt, yes, but also anger, playfulness, mischief, longing and above all, a fierce will to live.

And yet, neighbors and classmates, scared of infection, shunned the children. Here a filmmaker could lend a hand - dispel some of the unneeded fears and ease the stigma that surrounded them. And that is what I set out to do.

Lennon: Any time children suffer it's hard to watch, but here these children were suffering unnecessarily. The neighbors don't know how the disease is spread, so they don't want their children playing with Gao Jun. His uncle is a good man, but he doesn't want to see his own children ostracized.

So he isolates Gao - shunts him off to live alone, at three or four years old. That's hard to see.

Q: Perhaps the result of misinformation about the disease is more devastating. What are the most urgent and necessary things for Chinese people to combat AIDS?

Lennon: We're very proud of this film but we're even prouder of our work with the NBA, and David Ho, the famous Chinese-American AIDS researcher. We don't know how many viewers saw the public service ads we wrote and edited that featured Yao Ming and Magic Johnson but it has to have been at least a hundred million. And the Ministry of Health then invited us to do another PSA campaign, featuring many of the same AIDS orphans as are in the film, and those PSAs reached two to three hundred million people - many many many times more than will ever see this film.

AIDS is one of those diseases where information really does make a difference. It's been a privilege to be part of the process of helping information get out.

But the message needs constant reinforcement: whether about safe sex, or not sharing needles, about safety - but also about stigma. Because shame and silence are killers, too - they drive the disease underground, making it harder to track or treat.

Q: The film has won several awards. Are you optimistic it will win the Oscar? Your future plans?

Yang: We are thrilled at the nomination. We hope the documentary will reduce stigma against these children and during the process they will gain dignity and live like any other children in this world.

We will still do more work on AIDS awareness. Until there is a cure for AIDS, public education is it: the tool that we have.

Lennon: We want to keep on doing more work about AIDS but we'd like to find other health campaigns that could be useful. We're working to develop PSAs about smoking - a very different kind of epidemic, but one that kills even more Chinese than does AIDS.

China AIDS Media Project

The China AIDS Media Project was founded by Thomas Lennon and Ruby Yang in 2003 to help spread AIDS information. The project's first goal was to reduce the stigma that drives the disease underground.

The Yao Ming/Magic Johnson public service announcements, which Lennon and Yang wrote and edited, featured the two men embracing and sharing food. Made in cooperation with the NBA and world-renowned AIDS researcher Dr David Ho, the spots premiered during the excitement of the October 2004 "China Games."

Those were the first NBA games played in China, and have reached untold millions of Chinese television viewers, probably hundreds of millions.

The latest series of ads, featuring popular folk singer Peng Liyuan, are designed to ease the stigma and social rejection suffered by children affected by AIDS. Produced with the China Ministry of Health and UNICEF, the PSAs have aired more than 1,000 times on CCTV, reaching an estimated 200 million viewers.

In late 2005, the China AIDS Media Project got its first documentary work on the Chinese airwaves: a portrait of "Julia," a university student who contracted AIDS through sexual contact and who decided to go public.

It is one of the most candid discussions of pre-marital sex and its health consequences ever seen in a China broadcast. Other documentary shorts that were broadcast are "Yao Ming and Magic Johnson Behind the Scenes," "Yao Ming and Children Affected by HIV/AIDS," "Peng Liyuan and The Fu'ai Charity," and "Chung To: Up Close and Personal."

"The Blood of Yingzhou District" is the project's first effort to reach international audiences.

AIDS orphans suffer rejection

"The Blood of Yingzhou District," director Yang's latest documentary, has been nominated for this year's Academy Awards.

The film recounts how the terror of AIDS plays out in the lives of children in the remote villages of Anhui Province. Its honest lens mostly captures the pain of Gao Jun, an AIDS orphan who faces rejection by his surviving relatives.

Gao does not speak a word until the closing minutes of this documentary, revealing his strong resolve to live.

Producer Thomas Lennon feels that the misinformation about the nature of AIDS is also devastating.

"AIDS is one of those diseases for which information really does make a difference," he says.

During his writing and documentary filmmaking career, Lennon's works, mostly broadcast on PBS and HBO, have won him major television awards including two George Foster Peabody Awards, two national Emmys, a DuPont-Columbia Journalism award and an Academy Award nomination.

About five years ago, Lennon met Yang on the making of "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience." Lennon was the series producer and lead writer. Since 2003, they have been working together on a range of public service campaigns and documentaries about AIDS in China.

"We're very proud of this film and we're even prouder of the work that we've done with the NBA, and David Ho, the famous Chinese-American AIDS researcher," Lennon recalls.

Steven Gu, a friend of Yang and a volunteer of Chi Heng Foundation - a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization mainly engaged in AIDS-related projects - appreciates Lennon and Yang's endeavors in AIDs prevention.

"Yang is such a clever, passionate and open-minded person," he says. "She is our pride. In recent years, the Chinese government has already strengthened its approaches to preventing AIDS. But we do hope that many more people will be involved in this campaign, offering a hand to people in need."

Hong Kong-born director Ruby Yang has explored a range of Chinese themes through documentary and television.

Yang served as series editor for Bill Moyers' "Becoming American - The Chinese Experience" and is now based in Beijing, directing public service announcements and documentary as part of the China AIDS Media Project.

She is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including a Kaiser Media Fellow in 2004 for developing her work on HIV/AIDS.