“China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province,” which premieres on HBO tonight, is a heartbreaking example of what can only be called “Testimonial Television.” Almost a year after an earthquake in central China killed an estimated 70,000 people -- 10,000 of them children -- there is nothing to find among the rubble except sorrow and rage.
As all over Sichuan Province, schools filled with students collapsed while other buildings remained standing, grief-stricken parents demanded help from the government, help that never came. First emergency teams were routed away from smaller towns and villages where parents could hear children crying for help from beneath the debris. A fortunate few were able to actually dig their children out, others eventually found the corpses of their children (and were told to bury them themselves) but many were left with only the heaps of brick and dust to serve as a mass grave.
Unflinchingly, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neil, who began filming weeks after the catastrophe, revisit that horrible day, capturing the makeshift memorials, the backyard graves, the bottomless grief of parents -- many of whom lost their only child.
Sadness quickly turned to anger and from that a slender thread of narrative emerges. As parents comb through the remains of the schools, it becomes clear that many were built with little attention to safety codes. In some places, bricks are merely piled on bricks, with the merest film of mortar; in others structural reinforcement seemed suspiciously slight. In another town, a school was turned into a warehouse and all the students moved to another building, which later collapsed -- but the school-turned-warehouse stood.
The government’s only response is a payment of $317 per child killed.
Incensed, a group of parents march from the town of Fuxin, where 127 children died, 70 miles to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.
Along the way, police try to stop them and a party official tries to dissuade them, at one point falling to his knees, saying that he is ready to listen. But the parents tell him they are past the point of talking. (Ultimately, the government offered parents $8,000 per child lost, but only if the parents agree to be publicly silent about the event.)
It is not an easy film to watch -- the number of deaths is horrifying to contemplate, the images of the ruined schools shattering to behold. Nor does it offer much hope in terms of change or even general acknowledgment of what actually happened to these people, most of them peasants.
As they hold the pictures of their beloved children, the participants of “Tears of Sichuan” seem to be asking simply for acknowledgment. That their children lived, that their deaths might have been prevented, that the government should make certain such a thing does not happen again.
‘China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province’
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)