The Lasting Trauma of China’s Wenchuan Earthquake Survivors
18 Aug, 2021  |  Source:Sixth Tone  |  Hits:2248

Sixth Tone: How did you come to meet the two families and shoot a feature documentary about them?

Fan Jian: I was thinking of making a documentary about the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 but was struggling to find an angle. There were lots of images and videos circulating at that time. A year later, I learned there were people in the quake area who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and needed psychological help. I thought perhaps I could do something from this angle.

In May 2009, I started researching and found that a lot of the people receiving help from psychologists were mothers who had lost their only child during the earthquake. Most of them were hoping to give birth to another child. It was a complex mind-set because they were hoping for transmigration (of their dead child’s soul) through birth. I took my camera and started shooting.

I met many families and gradually narrowed down my potential subjects from 10 to about four or five. By the end of 2009, we ended up shooting mainly three families, including Ye Hongmei’s. During filming, Ye met the Gao family, and they became good friends. That’s how we ended up staying in touch with these two families.

We had already made a documentary — “The Next Life” — about Ye and her family. The trigger for me to continue shooting after 2017 was the final scene of “The Next Life,” when Zhu was crying in front of his daughter’s photo after Ye gave birth to a son. I had a feeling there would be tensions between father and son.

Also, it was about 10 years after the quake, and I wanted to resist oblivion. I felt that people were forgetting the disaster; their memories were fading too quickly. As a documentary maker, I thought I should do something.

Sixth Tone: I was in Chongqing when the earthquake hit Sichuan province, and also felt the tremor. But my memories of the disaster, too, seem to have faded with time. What can people — especially those who weren’t there to witness what happened — hold onto to remember Wenchuan, besides the official narratives?

For me, the motivation to make documentaries is to help keep a historical record.

- Fan Jian, filmmaker

Fan: Even people who were in Dujiangyan and experienced the earthquake chose to forget what happened. There were two contrasting attitudes among the survivors: Many tried to forget, while others chose to remember.

There are many documentaries about the Wenchuan earthquake, such as Du Haibin’s “1428” and Zhao Qi’s “Fallen City.” They’re different from the official narrative, and to some extent, they are historical materials.

For me, the motivation to make documentaries is also to help keep a historical record. I think for disasters like Wenchuan, the foremost function of documentaries is to record history, but to do so through personal, individual stories. It’s a kind of historical material with an author’s perspective.

Sixth Tone: After the earthquake, how much support did survivors receive as they tried to process their trauma?

Fan: The grassroots aid workers I met stayed in the communities for at least a year, helping affected families. You can’t just set up a psychological clinic for the parents, wait for them to come for consultations, and then expect everything to be OK. You have to engage with them actively and stick around for a long time.

But the aid team withdrew around 2011 for various reasons — both financial and in terms of their relationship with the local government. I wasn’t sure whether the government provided psychological support after the grassroots workers left, but I had my doubts.

For the parents, the trauma was still present. That’s why they hoped for a second child. They considered giving birth to be a way to cure themselves. They hoped if their dead child was a girl, their second child would also be female. If this “circle of life” was completed, they’d feel happier, and their mental health would improve.

I met some families who couldn’t bear a second child, and the mothers were physically and psychologically under strain. For fathers like Zhu, who lost his daughter while they were almost face-to-face, I think the PTSD might accompany him for life.

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