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

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

Video Egyptian Journalists Call for Press Freedom

Despite release of al-Jazeera journalists and others, Egyptian Journalist Syndicate says some remain imprisoned More

Turkey Survey Indicates Traditional Distrusts, Shift to the West

Comprehensive public opinion survey also found a large majority of those interviewed distrust all countries other than country’s neighbor, Azerbaijan More

Pakistan Court Upholds Death Sentence in Blasphemy Killing

Highest court upholds sentence of Mumtaz Qadri convicted of 2011 killing a provincial governor for criticizing country’s controversial blasphemy law More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Music Brings Generations Together

When musicians over the age of 50 headline a rock concert, you expect to see baby boomer fans in the audience. Boomer rock stars have boomer fans. Millennial rock stars have millennial fans. But this isn’t always the case. Take the Lockn’ Music festival which took place in mid-September in rural Arrington, Virginia. Here, Jacquelyn de Phillips discovered two generations of people who are considered quite different in the outside world, spending 4 days together in music-loving harmony.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs