Karamay

This is a documentary about a “secret” story in China.

The story started as a performance at Karamay, a small city which is famous for the crude fields, in Xinjiang, China. On December 8th, 1994, more than 800 schoolchildren and teachers gathered in the Karamay Friendship Theater to hold a performance. Many high-ranking city officials made an appearance. Unfortunately, the event was ended in a fire caused by a short-circuit light on the stage. Just in a few minutes, the fire quickly engulfed the stage with flames.

“Everybody keep quiet. Don’t move. Let the leaders walk out first!” Under this circumstance, a government official stood up and shouted to the audience—all of them are students and school teachers.

All the students and school teachers were required to remain in their seats so that government officials could exist first. However, by the time the leaders had finished exiting the fire had spread out beyond control. 323 people lost their lives in the fire, and 288 of them are school children, aged between 7 and 14. All of the leaders survived.

It is one of the most horrible and controversial fire disasters in the history of China. But tragedy was not ended in the fire. After the tragedy, families of dead and injured did not get enough assistance and properly compensation that they deserved. They were not allowed to seek justice and even express their rage and pains.

Although information and details about this disaster were still heavily censored in the Chinese state media even today, the fire has already become another “famous tag” labeled on Karamay in addition to its oil.

Named after the city, the film was premiered at Hong Kong’s 34th International Film Festival. But it was banned in mainland China.

The film is structured around a series of first-person accounts from families and survivors. Each narrative represents a unique story in which the subjects recount their feelings and reactions to the disaster and how it changes their lives.

Without any advanced shooting techniques, without any special design of editing, and even without any narration or background music, the director Xin Xu just tell the story by interviews and several pieces of never-before seen videos of the fire. Shot in stark, steady black and white, those parents who lost their children in the disaster are eventually given a space and an opportunity to express their rage, fear, sorrow and frustration in the struggle of lingering emotional impact of the tragedy over a decade later. They talk and cry. Now, they are still painful, helpless and hopeless. 

In this six-hour film, during all of these interviews, Xu is spare of asking questions, he even says little. Most of time he just set the camera and then listened.

Listening is a skill. Listening is also a form of communication—even without the process of information exchange. Sometimes it is much better than any questions. In Chinese painting, there is a technique called “blank-leaving”, which means to leave a blank area intentionally on the margin of a painting. It evaluates the subjects on the paintings to a higher artistic level and also provides audiences with more spaces to savor it and think about it. It seems that the same principle applies equally in the world of journalism. During an interview, it seems true that the journalist always led the conversation, but a proper “blank-leaving” is also needed. Sometimes I always feel my questions are simple and superficial, especially when I fail to collect enough related information before interview; but now I think maybe listening might help. Just listening to the interviewees (especially in a feature story), it may offer more information and inspiration.

Indeed, documentary is different with journalism. But those two have something in common. From this documentary, I also think more about how to be a good journalist. It is the journalist’s responsibility to reveal the injustice of society and to help those people who are less fortunate. For a journalist, the basic principle is to care about people and have courage to speak out the truth.

Putting aside all of the shooting and editing techniques or even the wording of scripts, a pair of sharp eyes and a loving heart are the most valuable key elements in storytelling.

The Documentary Karamay:

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