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How China’s Big Quake Shook Out

A documentary surveying the aftermath of the catastrophic 2008 temblor in China's Sichuan province offers insight into the fates of Chile and...


A documentary surveying the aftermath of the catastrophic 2008 temblor in China's Sichuan province offers insight into the fates of Chile and Haiti.

Early on in the Chinese documentary 1428, a teenage boy is shown wandering through the debris-strewn hallway of an abandoned school. "Are you a student at this school?" the cameraman asks.

"No," the boy replies. "My younger brother is."

"How is your younger brother?"

There's a pause, then off-camera, the boy's mother says, "We haven't found him yet." Moments later the boy, his mother, and his father dissolve into tears after locating the missing child's belongings in the school dormitory.

The wrenching scene was filmed in the Sichuan province of central China, 10 days after the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the region in May of 2008, killing 70,000 and leaving nearly 15 million displaced; the missing boy was a student at one of the 7,000 schools said to have collapsed in the quake. Similar scenes have undoubtedly played out in Haiti and Chile during the last few months, and in light of those more recent catastrophes, 1428-which won Best Documentary at last year's Venice Film Festival and takes its name from moment time the earthquake struck, at 2:28 in the afternoon-offers a revealing look at how both citizens and government respond to humanitarian tragedies.

Director Du Haibin says he set out to document life as it was being lived in the wake of the earthquake, and by doing so, to create an antidote to the official account of events that was broadcast on China's state-controlled television. He makes his intentions clear at the outset, showing a Chinese propaganda film playing over a tent city populated by people displaced by the earthquake. A visiting government official brags about how much the government is doing for refugees, but from the footage it's hard to see what that really entails. There are meager rations of instant noodles, and soldiers in camouflage and surgical masks to police the damaged roads, but otherwise people are left to fend for themselves, scavenging steel scraps from fields of rubble and pigs from wrecked farms, complaining bitterly all the while about Premier Wen Jiabao's failure to visit the area and talk to survivors.

There are several other emotional moments like the one in the school, as when a woman weeps before a decimated Buddhist temple while helicopters buzz overhead, leading a wise onlooker to reflect, "Some people say the Buddha can protect people from disaster, but he can't protect himself." But there are many more mundane, weirdly quotidian moments of people cooking, clearing debris, trying to get from one place to another. The mundane and the emotional collide, early on, in a scene where two women matter-of-factly discuss their dead family members while vigorously washing clothes.

Midway through, 1428 jumps from 10 days after the earthquake to 210 days after. Now it's the middle of winter and the Lunar New Year is approaching. Rows of temporary houses, each with its own satellite dish, have been set up. There are some new roads, too, and the government has requisitioned farmland with the intention of building a cement factory in Sichuan province. But many people have slipped through the cracks and are still living in tents and shacks. Banners over the streets of Beichuan, the town where the earthquake hit hardest, claim that the residents there "are grateful to the mother country." But once they spot the camera, those very residents are eager to complain about the mother country. "If the leader is good, I'll praise him in front of everybody, but he didn't give me my share!" an elderly woman exclaims at an open-air market. Conspiracy theories abound: The government lied about the magnitude of the earthquake to keep out international aid workers, and later it relocated parents of children lost at Ying-xiu Primary School so they wouldn't cause a fuss during Wen's long-awaited visit to the province. Over and over, a man says, "The policies of the Communist Party are good, but they're not carried out for ordinary people."

When Wen does arrive, he's just a brief blur in a motorcade. The film concludes after the celebration of the Lunar New Year at a flea market that is almost a shrine to the disaster. In a small park nestled atop a cliff, vendors hock photographs and videos documenting the earthquake to tourists, who look through telescopes at the rubble of Beichuan below. "We have to live in reality, don't we?" asks one merchant, a high-school student who says he lost friends and relatives in the earthquake. "The dead are dead."

But the living are still alive, and they must endure with or without the help their government, which for all its might, looks more like hapless Haiti than competent Chile. (Though China has committed more than $200 billion to rebuilding Sichuan province, it most recently made news for jailing a lead investigator into the school collapses.) One way the living in China have been enduring is by making films like 1428, part of a growing body of independent, activist Chinese filmmaking that aims to distinguish the real China from the government-sanctioned version. Another film in this vein is Ghost Town, a three-hour-long documentary about a remote mountain village left behind by the country's new economy, which screened at last year's New York Film Festival and begins a one-week run at New York's Museum of Modern Art this week, followed by a brief national university tour. 1428, which had its U.S. premiere as part of MoMA's Documentary Fortnight last month, is currently booking American film festival and exhibition dates, with a DVD release to follow.

Neither of these films is going to come anywhere near your local multiplex, but it's not impossible to see them or other original, uncensored filims out of mainland China. Both 1428 and Ghost Town are distributed by dGenerate Films, a two-year-old New York–based company that releases independent Chinese films through educational DVDs, online video-on-demand, public screenings, TV, and other non-theatrical channels. While Google continues to struggle with the Chinese government, the country's contemporary culture keeps leaking out to the rest of the world in subtle yet significant ways.

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