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Interview with Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill

Chinese man in crowd holding photo of little girl

HBO

In many of your films, you follow people whose lives are impacted, often tragically, by events beyond their control. China's Unnatural Disaster is that kind of film. How did you come to tell it?

Jon Alpert

The genesis of this project came from the fertile mind of (HBO's) Sheila Nevins. I think that Sheila was completely overcome by the reports that were coming out of China about the suffering of the people, and specifically the suffering of parents whose children were buried in collapsed schools. She called us and said, Would you guys like to go to China and see if there's a film there? And the next thing you know we were on a plane, and then standing in the middle of Schezuan province.

And we've reported for HBO from war zones and seen bombed areas. But the total destruction of some cities was something I ahd never seen before.

HBO:

What were your first impressions?

Matthew O'Neill:

Awestruck horror. There were parts of Schezuan province that were absolutely totaled. And we've reported for HBO from war zones and seen bombed areas. But the total destruction of some cities was something I had never seen before. At first we thought we had missed a lot of the action that had happened in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. So we shifted our focus to go to the sites where schools had collapsed...

Jon Alpert:

And as we were driving, sort of into the middle of nowhere, all of a sudden this long line of people started coming towards us on the other side of the road. They were each holding something. We couldn't see what it was, so we stopped the car and got out. Each person was holding an 8 x 10 photograph of their child that had died when the school collapsed. And because China is a one-child- only country, these were the only children of these families. In this particular case, the rescue teams did not come to this school. The kids had cell phones and were lying underneath the rubble, calling their parents, begging to be saved, and then subsequently died. The parents had to tear through the stones with their bare hands to get to the dead bodies of their kids. And after they got over the initial grief and had buried their children, they returned to the school and set up an impromptu memorial with the photographs of their children under a tent. And sat there waiting for promised answers. But the parents were ignored. Eventually they got mad and started marching. And that's when we ran into them.

This was ten days after the initial shock and grief and anger. These parents were camped out begging the government to answer their questions as to why their school collapsed while buildings around it stood. And so they waited and waited and waited. And their anger grew and their frustration grew and eventually they said, We have to take this to the central government. And they set off on their march.

HBO:

What kind of response did they get?

Matthew O'Neill:

As they marched towards the provincial seat to demand justice, they flipped the script on the local officials and were effective in gathering media attention, not only from us but from a lot of domestic Chinese media. People were listening to their stories, and other parents who had suffered similar tragedies joined the march. But the government moved in and slowly and very effectively smothered their clamoring for justice. Later in the film you see the officials promise an investigation, but a year later there's been nothing - no official claim of responsibility, no official investigation, nothing published to answer these parents' questions.

And in order to collect the money that was eventually given to them as part of a settlement for people in the earthquake zone who lost their children, they had to sign a document that made them promise that they wouldn't march, and that they would support the local government and promise to keep quiet.

HBO:

How do you think this event compares to press coverage and the recovery efforts in the U.S. during Hurricane Katrina?

Matthew O'Neill:

Undoubtedly there were problems with our own rescue efforts. But there are more effective outlets for dissent in this country, for voices to reach out to the public. The difference is the images we recorded are reaching an audience in the United States, and we hope eventually in China as well. The Chinese press was barred from releasing their images, from writing about the protests, from allowing the rest of the country to understand the parents' anger and their quest for justice.

Jon Alpert:

If you look at the scope of the Chinese rescue effort I think it compares favorably, and actually to some degree, shames what the United States did in responding to Katrina. But because of the Olympics and the promise that the Chinese government had made to have free, unfettered press, the first few days of the earthquake had the semblance of free press when in fact the Chinese government were saying, We don't want you coming to Schezuan. But everybody came anyway.

What happened to these parents and their children became apparent to anybody who had open eyes and was going around the disaster zone. And as reports began to come out, the Chinese government began trying to reel in the press.

They even threatened us that we better stop doing this reporting. But we were prepared for that and made sure that our material could not be captured by the authorities, and that it would indeed be available for people to see.

To see the courage that these parents have to fight for answers was very inspiring. And the fact that they wanted us to be part of this search for answers and justice really sort of fulfilled some of the basic reasons why we make these films and why HBO broadcasts them.

HBO:

What do you hope this film can do in terms of shining a spotlight on the aftermath of this tragedy?

Matthew O'Neill:

I think as filmmakers we owe it to the parents to get this film out there in the United States and around the world. As we went to their homes and visited the gravesites of their children, the parents were opening up to us because they saw this film as a possible ally in their quest for justice. They want the media to pay attention to this story because they know without attention the local government can smother and destroy their quest for justice. It's only with constant pressure that they have any chance of getting answers to their questions. So I hope that our film can be part of the pressure that's building in China to have an investigation, and get answers for these parents.

Jon Alpert:

I think that it's appropriate that this film is not only being broadcast on the anniversary of the earthquake, but it's also Mother's Day. And the love these families have for their children and their hopes for them are things that any audience can identify with: when you've lost everything and there's nothing else to lose. To see the courage that these parents have to fight for answers was very inspiring. And the fact that they wanted us to be part of this search for answers and justice really sort of fulfilled some of the basic reasons why we make these films and why HBO broadcasts them. It was devastating, but it was also heartwarming to be included in this, and to help these parents.

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

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