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“China’s Unnatural Disaster”: New HBO Documentary Chronicles Struggles of Grieving Parents Following 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

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China says just over 5,300 schoolchildren died or remain missing after last year’s devastating Sichuan earthquake, far lower than initial reports at the time. Parents have blamed local corruption and official neglect for the collapse of so many schools and for the loss of their children. We speak to co-directors Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill about their new HBO film China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, which visits with the parents in China in the days after the disaster. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 12, 2010“China’s Unnatural Disaster”: Oscar-Nominated Doc on Sichuan Earthquake Brings World Attention to Chinese Crackdown on Dissidents
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Chinese government has put the number of dead and missing schoolchildren from last year’s devastating Sichuan earthquake at 5,335. Chinese officials made the announcement today, just days before the May 12th anniversary of the earthquake that killed up to 90,000 people. It is the first time that Chinese authorities have given an official estimate for the number of children lost in the disaster, and the figure is far lower than other independent estimates. News reports at the time of the disaster put the number of dead and missing children and teachers at around 9,000.

AMY GOODMAN: Many parents blame shoddy buildings for the deaths, pointing to apartments and government offices that survived while nearby schools fell. The government has admitted nearly 14,000 schools were damaged or collapsed in the magnitude-8 earthquake. Parents have blamed local corruption and official neglect for the collapse of so many schools and for the loss of their children.

    GRIEVING MOTHER: We have been devastated by the loss of our child. He just passed his fifteenth birthday. Looking at this, I really want to question the quality of the school building.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from a documentary premiering tonight on HBO called China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province. The film visits with parents in China in the days after the disaster.

Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill are co-directors of the film. Jon is a fifteen-time Emmy winner and the co-founder of Downtown Community Television right here at the firehouse. Matt O’Neill is a three-time Emmy winner and works with Jon Alpert here at DCTV. Their documentary airs tonight 8:00 Eastern Standard Time on HBO and will re-air on the anniversary of the earthquake, on May 12th at 11:00 p.m.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! You went to China right after the disaster. Explain what you found and why you were so — why you felt it was so important for people to understand.

JON ALPERT: Sheila Nevins, head of HBO documentaries, called us and said, “Get over to China as fast as you can.” And we were driving down the road one day, and we saw a column of people coming towards us. And each person was carrying what we discovered was an eight-by-ten photograph of their dead child, and their kids had been buried when the school collapsed.

In their town, almost all the other buildings remained standing. The school was the building that collapsed. And nobody came to help rescue the kids. The kids were calling out on their cell phones, “Mommy, Dad, save me!” And they died. And the parents began asking, “Why did the school collapse? Was it shoddy construction? Was there corruption?” And nobody gave them any answers. And after ten days, they got angry, and they started marching.

AMY GOODMAN: And Matt, the significance of these marches?

MATT O’NEILL: Well, it’s interesting. You know, we — in China, all the time, there are protest marches, but it’s so rare that cameras get to record them and those images ever reach an audience. Now, we’ve been to China a number of times trying to make documentary programs, in fact, trying to record protests that were similar to what was happening over different issues, and could never get close at all.

But this time, because of the chaos of the earthquake and because the parents wanted us to tell their story — they knew that the domestic press wouldn’t be able to get their story out — so you see them beckon to us many times in the film, saying, “Come on. Get on the bus with us. Come on this march with us. Please, tell our story to the world, because we want justice for our children.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, it’s been a year now. The government supposedly was conducting an investigation but hasn’t yet released a report. And what’s been the repercussions for the central government to the officials in Sichuan province?

JON ALPERT: Well, they never did release a report. They promised the parents that they would investigate, and the parents sat around waiting. That’s why they went on their march and the parents began to protest, because nobody ever answered any questions. Nobody has ever been punished.

They did buy the silence of many people. If you received money to compensate you for the loss of your child, you had to sign a contract saying that you weren’t going to protest.

JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s like the Victims Compensation Fund after 9/11.

JON ALPERT: It was interesting. I mean, if you analyze the Chinese response to their disaster and compare it to Katrina, they did a pretty good job. They sent the army in there right away. Soldiers, they were running down the road to build things and to try and pull people out.

But the difference is that we learned about our failures through the press. And the press pointed out things that really made me ashamed as an American, the way we responded. And we got a chance to try to look at what we did and to better ourselves. And in China, they could be so much better if they looked at what they did and said, “You know, we were wrong. Our officials did something wrong.” And they wouldn’t do it. They basically muzzled the press and tried to muzzle the parents.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon and Matt, you were detained, speaking of being muzzled, as you tried to get tape out of China.

MATT O’NEILL: Yeah. Well, we weren’t detained while we were — luckily, we were not detained while we were trying to get it out. What happened is that, one day after the protest, I was threatened with arrest. Two days later, Jon was threatened with arrest. And that night, we got back to the hotel, and we said, “You know what? They’re turning up the heat. We’ve had these problems before. Let’s get the tapes out of the country.” And you always have a backup plan. And the day after we got the tapes out of the country was when we were arrested. And there’s no better feeling than when someone says, “Show me your tapes,” and you can say, “I’d love to. I really would.”

AMY GOODMAN: And when I was at that premiere the other night at HBO, you had just gotten a call from the Chinese government as you were headed there.

JON ALPERT: Well, we’re interested in talking with the Chinese government, because we didn’t make this film to poke them in the eye. We made this film basically because the parents want people to hear what happened to them and would like things better in their country. The Chinese government really has a chance, really, to step up to the plate and to basically investigate this properly, and they haven’t done it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And there are some lawsuits, though, that many of the parents have filed lawsuits within the Chinese legal system?

JON ALPERT: Yeah, courageously so. Matt knows the details of that.

MATT O’NEILL: Yeah, the parents of Fuxin school, which is the school that we focus on in this film, filed a lawsuit. They had fifty-eight complainants. They were asking for additional compensation beyond that $8,000 and, most importantly to them, a public apology.

What happened is, when they all showed up in court on the day the suit was meant to be heard, one of the parents was missing. And it turned out that that parent was too busy with the new construction contracts from the local government to come to court that day. And that’s where — you know, when you saw — we were talking about Kent State earlier. That’s where it’s crushed with a fist. You know, the Chinese government is smothering this dissent.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt O’Neill and Jon Alpert, your film, China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, airs tonight on HBO, 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Thanks so much for joining us.

JON ALPERT: Thanks for having us.

MATT O’NEILL: Thanks. Appreciate it.

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“China’s Unnatural Disaster”: Oscar-Nominated Doc on Sichuan Earthquake Brings World Attention to Chinese Crackdown on Dissidents

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