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Q&A with Qi Zhao: The Fallen City of Beichuan

The mountain city of Beichuan.
The mountain city of Beichuan.
Ray Kouguell

A massive earthquake which struck Sichuan province on May 12, 2008 killed almost 70,000 people, China’s deadliest in thirty years. The mountain city of Beichuan was wiped out leaving 20,000 dead. The documentary Fallen City focuses on the lives of three families who suffered personal loss, how they endured their new permanent displacement, and the emotional toll it took to move on.

Hong is a 14-year-old who lost his father, buried under the rubble. The relationship with his mother begins to fall apart as do his studies in school. Hong fails his high school entrance exams and starts to lead a solitary existence of sleep and playing video games.

Mr. and Mrs. Peng are a couple in their 30’s, devastated over the loss of their 11-year-old daughter who died in a school collapse and themselves left homeless from the earthquake. Mrs. Peng cannot cope and moves away to grieve in Shanghai.

53-year-old divorcee Li Guihua suffers the loss of her daughter, three sisters, and three year old granddaughter. She is left to care for her paraplegic mother and a job as community director for temporary housing.

As their narratives unfold, the old city of Beichuan is abandoned, and a new one with modern conveniences built 20 kilometers away in just two years through the help of several Chinese provinces. About 30,000 people are relocated.

Fallen City is written and directed by Qi Zhao who focuses on both the personal stories and the bureaucratic influences facing the survivors in the earthquake’s aftermath. VOA’s Ray Kouguell spoke with Zhao, who is based in Beijing, about his deeply heartfelt reaction to the death and destruction and their effects on the filmmaking.

Q&A with Qi Zhao: The Fallen City of Beichuan
Q&A with Qi Zhao: The Fallen City of Beichuani
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ZHAO: When the earthquake happened, as a filmmaker, I think maybe I need to go there and record something but in the very beginning I didn’t realize what a film I’m going to make in the future. But I was there and because it seems that there are all the press in the world, at least from China, they all gathered in the city to report the heavy earthquake. I was thinking maybe I want to do something different. It’s most on the feeling, the inner feeling that when you have seen the chaotic situation everywhere that I was hoping to shoot something that can make myself calm down so I was shooting in a quite slow and steady style in the beginning but then after maybe half a year shooting, I began to look for my characters. Then in the later parts of shooting I began to focus more about people’s lives. And also I think, that somehow, fall into reflection about what’s happening in China in general, in a big picture. If something refers to the past and then something huge happened very quickly that drives people out of [the] past and put them into [the] present.

KOUGUELL: How receptive were the survivors you talked with?

ZHAO: It’s a very painful story for them to recall when they try to heal themselves. Many of the interviews were taken after a year and a half. But at that time I find that they were also to some extent willing to talk. It seems they have hidden something in their hearts for so long and then when it’s a good time in the day are willing to pour out their feeling.

KOUGUELL:  While making the film did you experience any significant emotions?

ZHAO: Yes, actually it’s a pretty big problem for me, in the very beginning because this was really something I had never seen before in life, the bodies. You have that in Hollywood movies but you never really have that in the real life. A movie is a movie, but real life it’s a different story. So when I was there I think I cried a lot. But in order to make myself calm down, I tend to shoot something very large in a very slow mood. Maybe that’s a way to cure myself as well.

KOUGUELL: Is the film trying to say something about rural tradition versus a more modern Chinese government?

ZHAO: I think this is a very subtle message, this is a very subtle feeling but I do have this message in the film. It’s the traditional world that we are familiar with, have been taken away. The new city is very posh. It’s [a] very modern society, modern China. How the story goes on the characters reflect how the whole generation right now in China goes.

KOUGUELL: Do you think those of us who have not experienced a natural disaster of such a magnitude could learn something from the film and something about the human condition?

ZHAO:  I hope so, of course, and also how the real grassroots people feel. I hope this film has more depth for people to get into. But I think people will get the information because I think the film is quite complicated and with different layers for people to understand.

KOUGUELL: Zhao’s documentary offers shocking scenes of Beichuan’s devastation, the loneliness felt by his subjects, and a follow up to their lives three years later. Zhao is a thoughtful filmmaker who succeeds in taking the viewer past the melancholy and asks questions about what it takes for a slow recovery in a fast, changing China. It will stay with you. Fallen City was an official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and will be nationally broadcast on U.S. public television on July 28. 

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