News / Asia

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
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

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. 

You May Like

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid