U.S. Filmmakers Help Bring AIDS Out of the Shadows in China

2006 June 23  |  Washington Post
By Nora Boustany
Two Americans interested in the stigma that AIDS patients face in China started out on a filmmaking journey with goodwill and naivete and ended up with a haunting, award-winning documentary.
In "The Blood of Yingzhou District," director Ruby Yang and producer Thomas Lennon chronicle the sorrowful story of AIDS orphans in China and the experiences of a brave adult with HIV who was willing to step out of the shadows.
Lennon said that making the film was like "walking in the dark and trying to grab the banister. You start out on a project not knowing what you are going to do, and you find your way in the dark." But a lucky confluence of kindnesses and evolving government policy helped the filmmakers keep going.
The film premiered June 14 at the Silverdocs documentary festival in Silver Spring, where it won the coveted Grand Jury Prize.
Yang, now based in Beijing, said she wanted to focus on the "traditional stigmas and silences of Chinese family life" that she came across during her research for the film in the remote villages in Anhui province.
She found that grief, but also ignorance and fear, shaped the way orphaned children were treated. She also saw "the range of the children's experience: hurt, yes, but also anger, playfulness, mischief, longing and a fierce will to live."
A crucial advance was made when Jing Jun , a sociology professor at Xinhua University, introduced the filmmakers to Zhang Yin , a businesswoman who runs the Fuyang AIDS Orphans Salvation society, which helps children with the disease.
Zhang became interested in the care of children left destitute by their parents' deaths from AIDS when she began administering medicine sent from the United States to an infected 10-year-old girl. She later established the society, which is run on a shoestring budget and now helps 300 children.
Zhang gave the film crew access to children affected by the disease without risking government interference.
"It is difficult to make something like this in China," said Jing, the sociology professor. "It was quite remarkable to me that a local group involved allowed them to film the children."
In the film, a 14-year-old girl, Nannan Ren , is shunned by her relatives. Her story turns even more poignant when her sister, about to be married, concludes she may have to abandon her, too. A little boy, Gao Jun, loses his parents to AIDS and stops speaking, but he finds his voice at the end of the film. These stories and others helped break the code of silence about AIDS and dispel some of the misinformation about the disease.
Another important facilitator in the project was a Chinese journalist, Jiang Hua , whose magazine had published groundbreaking stories about AIDS in China. Jiang put the American film team in contact with a Chinese college student with HIV. The student, whom they called Julia, allowed them to film her before she decided whether to let them use the footage.
"We filmed without guarantees," Lennon said. "Those scenes had immediacy because she was in mid-crisis and agonizing over her decision." Julia knew she would run into a firestorm of problems, including risking her job and her place at the university, but gambled that the publicity would at least assure her of medical care. "There were a lot of frantic late-night phone calls."
"Hers was an almost American-style decision of choosing to go through the media when faced with a crisis to protect herself," Lennon said. "Instead of getting the usual shrouded, veiled and silhouetted face, she was fully visible. Yes, she said, I got it through premarital sex, a revelation perhaps banal by American standards now."
Lennon decided early on that his and Yang's work must be shown in China if it was to have a chance of making a difference. The two ended up producing several public service spots for Chinese media, one of them solicited by the Chinese Health Ministry.
One ad campaign features Yao Ming , the Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 center, with former basketball star Magic Johnson , who has HIV. Images of the two shaking hands and sharing a meal with chopsticks appear on buses and billboards in China.
"There was no way that we wanted to go do work on AIDS in China without contributing in some way," Lennon said Wednesday from New York. "Otherwise, it would have been an act of hypocrisy."
"What we brought were some skills and a desire to help and then tried to follow the path where the resistance was least great," said Lennon, who had worked with Yang and Bill Moyers on the documentary "Becoming American," which traced Chinese immigration from the 19th century on.
In December 2003, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited a clinic and had his picture taken shaking hands with an AIDS patient. The snapshot represented a 180-degree turn in the government's policy on talking about AIDS.
Jing, the professor, called the filmmakers and the people who helped them "accidental" heroes. "People act out of great kindness, not expecting their work to evolve on such a large scale," he said.