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IN THE NEWS

Film gives voice to shunned AIDS children
By Kevin Griffin  |   Vancouver Sun  |   May 24, 2007

Award-winning documentary exposes a tragedy of ignorance in China

Instead of smiling and playing like most three year olds, Gao Jun stares mutely at the camera. He looks like the saddest child in the world. He's losing his hair and his legs and arms are covered with little sores that look like infected insect bites. He's wearing nothing but rags. In the village where he lives, no one will play with him. 

Gao Jun is one of China's 75,000 AIDS orphans. Both of his parents have died from the syndrome and Gao Jun has it as well. One uncle won't take care of him because he's worried that his own children will be shunned if Gao Jun is part of the family; another won't take him in because he thinks that having a nephew with AIDS around will make it impossible for him to find a wife. As in much of rural China, people mistakenly believe that AIDS is spread by casual contact. 

When Gao Jun is adopted into a family where both parents are HIV positive, the change is dramatic. Within three months, with a little love, affection and good food, Gao Jun's hair has grown back and he's full of life, running and smiling like other children. He finally has friends who will play with him. But his good health doesn't last. When an opportunistic infection renders him listless again, nothing can cheer the toddler up. 

Gao Jun is one of several Chinese AIDS orphans profiled in The Blood of the Yingzhou District, one of the first films to look at the AIDS epidemic in the country. In rural China desperately poor farmers became infected with HIV after selling their blood for less than $10 and a bag of rice cakes. Public health officials estimate that up to 10 per cent of the population is infected in some provinces. 

The film, which won an Academy Award for best documentary short this year, is extremely difficult to watch at times because of how unflinchingly it portrays the discrimination faced by children. In one village in Anhui province, the three Huang children bawl their eyes out as they talk about how the death of their father from AIDS has resulted in being shunned by everyone at school. 

In another, a woman named Little Flower admits that she won't ever tell her new husband that her sister Nan Nan has AIDS. 

Although watching a film about children with a life-threatening illness can lead to a sense of hopelessness about the future, the film itself is a sign of hope because it is part of an ongoing effort to educate the most populous country in the world about AIDS. The film is directed by Ruby Yang, who, along with Thomas Lennon, founded the China AIDS Media Project. Their first effort in 2004 addressed the stigma around AIDS by creating public service announcements featuring Yao Ming, the Chinese National Basketball Association star, and Magic Johnson, the first NBA player with HIV to play in the league after going public with his health status in 1991. The spots featured the two men embracing and eating food together. The Blood of the Yingzhou District is the project's first effort to reach an international audience. 

The Blood of the Yingzhou District, in Chinese with English subtitles, is being screened at 7 p.m. tonight at the Vancity Theatre at the Vancouver International Film Centre as part of the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. 

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