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Left for dead
South China Morning Post  |  February 15, 2007  |  By Didi Kirsten Tatlow

HIV-positive orphans on the mainland have been shunned by relatives, but a docu-mentary on their plight might provide a lifeline, writes Didi Kirsten Tatlow

NO ONE KNOWS how old Gao Jun is. The little boy with the watchful eyes hasn't spoken since his mother and father died of Aids. The same indifference has befallen all three Huang children, who became HIV-positive through their parents.

Then there's Nannan, a 14-year-old, HIV-positive orphan who faces an uncertain future on her own when her sister Xiaohua marries. It's a secret her future husband's family could never come to terms with.

These stories from Yingzhou, Anhui province, are just the tip of the iceberg - there are perhaps tens of thousands of Aids orphans fighting to survive on the mainland, often living in dire poverty and neglected by their closest relatives. Many were orphaned by impoverished parents who sold blood for money in the 1990s, contracting HIV through unhygienic practices. But the story of their plight won't be confined to their villages any longer, because a documentary about these neglected children is in the running for an Academy Award.

For Hong Kong-born director Ruby Yang and New York producer Thomas Lennon, the nomination of The Blood of Yingzhou District is a personal triumph, as well as a lifeline of hope for the orphans. 'I'm very proud and I think it's a validation of being an artist,' says Yang. 'I think also the stories themselves are very powerful.

'I met and worked with [Aids-inflicted] people in the US in the art world. And I understand stigma. But in China it was my first time meeting children with Aids. It was heartbreaking. They were doubly stigmatised as orphans and being HIV-positive.'

The 39-minute documentary has already won the grand jury award at the 2006 Silverdocs documentary film festival and was nominated for three other prizes: two at the International Documentary Association Awards, and the third at the DOCNZ International Documentary Festival in Auckland. It was shown in Hong Kong on December 1 last year for World Aids Day.

Filming on the mainland was difficult. Officials' attitudes were ambivalent: sometimes supportive, sometimes suspicious. International health workers say the government has helped more in recent years, but the topic remains riven with sensitivity. Even the number of people with Aids is disputed, with the government saying 650,000, a figure some experts say is far too low.

Yang began filming in the winter of 2005, having moved temporarily from San Francisco to Beijing. Shooting took 18 months and she was struggling to find a way into the story. Then Tsinghua University professor Jing Jun introduced her to Zhang Ying, a businesswoman-turned-philanthropist who runs the Aids Orphans Salvation Society in Fuyang, Anhui. Jing is one of seven advisers to the China Aids Media Project, which Yang and Lennon set up to co-ordinate grants and produce public service announcements.

Zhang introduced Yang to some of the 400 Aids orphans she's helping in her home. That helped open doors locally. For Yang, it was a rewarding, but shattering, experience. Touring the poor, snow-bound villages of northwest Anhui - next to Henan province, the centre of illegal blood-selling - Yang found children living alone amid the stench of death.

'They lived on dirt floors, with windows that didn't shut,' she says. 'They didn't have heating. They didn't want to talk to strangers. I think they were so conditioned to being shunned by people.'

While remaining wary, some gradually grew accustomed to her presence - such as Gao Jun, who weighs just over 13kg. 'There was something about him, in his eyes,' says Yang. 'He understood everything. Each time I left, in his eyes was the expression, 'Am I being left again?''

In her director's statement accompanying the film's release, Yang wrote: 'The uncle of the Huang children ... led me through their old family home. There were still empty medicine bottles, worn out toys, the children's writing on the wall, their grandmother wailing through the window; 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.'

Instead, Yang focused on 'the range of the children's experience: hurt, yes; but also anger, playfulness, mischief, longing and a fierce will to live'.

Sometimes, the children's relatives showed guilt at abandoning them. When Gao Jun's uncle, who lived next door, brought him to a foster family - themselves HIV-positive - the parting took three hours. It was the first time Yang saw Gao cry. The painful moment was captured on film. The relatives argued that taking care of the children would blight the lives of the whole family. An uncle caring for his dead brother's HIV-positive children would be unable to marry. Xiaohua would almost certainly have been rejected as a suitable bride if her husband's family knew Nannan was HIV-positive.

Despite the overwhelming sadness of the story, Yang and Lennon offer moments of hope and laughter.

Yang's 80 hours of footage had to be whittled down to 40 minutes. Lennon, also a filmmaker and a previous Academy Award nominee (for the 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, exploring the struggle between Orson Welles and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst over the film), wielded the scissors. Both describe their partnership as highly creative, but volatile.

'I'm really, really tough about whether one scene advances the story, and so again and again there would be conflict,' says Lennon. 'One person finds [the material], and another person refines it, and you know you've got a creative partner. The fact is, film is a big and cumbersome medium and some of the greatest moments are collaborative moments.'

Yang agrees. They've worked together in the past, notably on Becoming American - the Chinese Experience, an Emmy-nominated television series tracing the story of Chinese immigrants from the early 19th century to the present day.

'We've been partners for many years now,' she says. 'But he's very opinionated and we've had big fights - in person and by e-mail. He would be very tactful, but I'd [just] say no! I'm an emotional person. But I'm glad he wasn't so attached to the film and was able to see it as the viewer.'

The pair are now focusing on two new projects: about smoking and the environment. With one in three of the world's smokers Chinese, Lennon is astonished at how widespread the deadly habit is.

And Yang is fired up about a series profiling mainlanders who are making a positive difference to the environment. She plans to distribute the short films, each about five to 10 minutes long, on the internet. 'These are the films I like to do: very beautiful, and having an impact.'

The Academy Awards take place on the morning of February 26 (Hong Kong time)