Breaking the Stigma

2007 March 8  |  Beijing Review
By Wu Yiqing
Documentary about orphaned Chinese children with AIDS aims to tackle discrimination
Chinese American filmmaker Ruby Yang described to China's Xinhua News Agency the making of the film The Blood of Yingzhou District -- a film about Chinese orphans of AIDS victims--as “a very emotional journey” after she and Thomas Lennon won an Oscar for best documentary short film on February 25. But she believes there's something more horrible than AIDS in the country. That is the indifference of the human heart which breeds discrimination against children who are orphaned by the epidemic.
Determined to change the Chinese mainland's perception of the next AIDS generation, Yang ventured into the epidemic zone with her camera crew and tried to remove the shame imposed on the victimized children.
The result was Oscar-nominated documentary The Blood of Yingzhou District, which chronicles the lives of the Wang sisters, HIV-positive teenager Ren Nannan, and toddler Gao Jun over the course of more than a year, as they brave through many personal challenges.
Its riveting images have haunted viewers in China and abroad and helped dispel the misinformation which perpetuates the stigma against children in AIDS households.
Even though they are healthy, the Wangs are crippled by economic burden when their parents died of AIDS, leaving three daughters to face discrimination at school.
Meanwhile, Gao's uncle and relatives shun any connection with him and leave the toddler to his mentally disabled grandmother who lives in a dilapidated hut next door. The kid is forced to lead a nomadic life seeking shelter in homes of various HIV-positive couples. Finally, AIDS-infected Ren is compelled to silence, fearing that her sister's new husband would seek divorce if he finds out the family shame.
The idea to film the abandoned AIDS orphans in China came to mind when Yang worked as the series editor for Bill Moyers' Becoming American: The Chinese Experience in 2003. “Stories of China's AIDS orphans were headline news then and I really wanted to address the problem publicly,” recalled Yang.
She then approached fellow film producer and director Thomas Lennon (The Battle Over Citizen Kane) to collaborate on the project. “Tom said that showing the AIDS documentary here doesn't do anything. It should be aired in China, where it's a matter of life and death.”
It took the pair two years to raise the necessary funds, and they founded the China AIDS Media Project in 2004 to direct public service announcement (PSA) and produce documentaries to increase AIDS prevention awareness in China.
Their first PSA, which stars basketball stars Magic Johnson and Yao Ming, has reached millions of Chinese viewers. The rare celebrity endorsements in China helped them gain the trust of the Ministry of Health and won them assistance from the state-owned news mammoth China Central Television.
Contrary to the conception that the Chinese authorities are bureaucratic and opaque about the transmission of public information, Yang said censorship is not a concern at all, “We encountered incredibly little disturbance from the government, and no resistance from local stations.”
On the other hand, HIV-positive sex workers and homosexuals are touchy subjects to fathom. “The Ministry of Health talks about high risk groups all the time, but the TV programs are not allowed to openly talk about their lifestyles,” she explained.
But Yang showed it is not impossible to do. Last year, she produced an interview with To Chung, a Harvard graduate who founded Hong Kong-based Chi Heng Foundation to help AIDS orphans. The interview of the openly gay advocate was aired on several local TV stations in Shanghai and Yunnan. “We just have to keep pushing the envelope,” she said.
Yang subsequently filmed a half-hour interview with a college student nicknamed Julia who contracted AIDS via a “normal” heterosexual courtship. The broadcast gained national attention and helped dispel the myth that AIDS is an “immoral” disease which results from sexual promiscuity.
“There's a prevailing stigma against AIDS patients and their families. People are afraid if they reveal the problem, they will lose their jobs or can't get a wife. Our goal is not to change society, but to change its attitudes toward the disease,” she said.
Making that goal a reality was an odyssey that took much longer than expected.
Her project was green-lighted after two milestone moments. The first was the national outbreak of SARS, which pressured the Chinese Government into being more transparent about healthcare crises. “They realized if they don't act quickly, it would be detrimental to the country's progress,” she said.
Another turning point was Bill Clinton's visit to China in 2003. “The American president embraced an HIV-positive young man during his visit. A few days later, the Chinese leader shook hands with an HIV patient in public. It was a symbolic moment that the Chinese Government would deal with the problem openly,” she recalled.
With national write-ups on and press attention to the documentary, the desolate kids were heralded as the poster children of the AIDS anti-stigma campaign. They were later met by China's Premier Wen Jiabao in Zhongnanhai, seat of Chinese central authorities in Beijing. “It's an amazing journey. We just couldn't imagine it would happen,” she said. “When the Chinese Government sticks to a cause, they will do it to the maximum.”
Yang admits that gaining access to the AIDS orphans was an arduous process. It was almost impossible to cut through the red tape in the heart of the epidemic zone in Henan Province, where AIDS is spread via black market blood collection and transfusions. “The local authorities and hospitals don't want any reminder of the mistakes. Even CCTV could not access the kids there. They don't like journalists getting close to them,” she said.
In 2005, Yang resorted to venturing into nearby Anhui Province. Her team befriended Zhang Ying, a local entrepreneur-turned-advocate who built a new facility in a small town called Fuyang to house AIDS orphans.
“After the fierce crackdown on illegal blood selling in Henan, many of the 'blood merchants' fled to Fuyang. The Fuyang authorities think the AIDS problem doesn't stem from them, therefore, in a way, they are willing to deal with it and work with the media,” she explained.
Since then, Fuyang has become a “model town” for AIDS prevention and the local AIDS orphans have received free education and medication under a national campaign.
Chronicling the heart-wrenching ordeal of the AIDS orphans could extract an emotional toll; therefore, the filmmaker tried to keep a critical distance from her subjects. “It took me a long time to edit the piece. Sometimes I'd do the shooting, other times I'd get my cinematographer to visit the villages,” she recalled.
Yang did not look at the footage until a few months later. “I couldn't stop my tears every time I looked at Gao Jun. But after you have looked at it for a thousand times, there's a limit to your emotion. In the end, you just concentrate on getting things done.”
The filmmaker said it was a different process from her work editing commercial films such as Joan Chen's Autumn in New York and Wayne Wong's Joy Luck Club.
“Editing feature film is much easier. The emphasis is on the craft and you just need to bring out what the director envisions. But in documentary, you don't have any control of your subjects. You just let the story unfold on its own,” she said.
Yang said winning the Oscars is the last thing on her mind and she is content that her film has achieved an invaluable public service. “Originally, these kids' only friends were chicken and pigs. Everybody shunned them. Gao Jun was in such bad shape. I thought he couldn't make it. And now he's talking nonstop,” she said. “I'm glad they receive overdue affection now. My goal is to open a public dialogue and begin the process of caring for these children.”
The author is a New York-based writer.