Up for an Oscar, Local Filmmakers Tell Story Behind their Documentary | Tribeca Trib

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Up for an Oscar, Local Filmmakers Tell Story Behind their Documentary | Tribeca Trib

Jon Alpert co-founded the non-profit Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) in 1972 in the landmark firehouse at Lafayette and White Streets. Over the years, Alpert and the center won many awards for their documentaries, including 15 Emmys. This month, for the first time, a DCTV production is in the running for an Academy Award. Produced for HBO, the documentary short, “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province,” begins days after the country’s catastrophic earthquake in 2008. It follows a group of bereaved parents seeking answers from officials about shoddy school construction that led to the deaths of their children and many others. Alpert and Matt O’Neill, who faced fierce opposition and threats while filming, tell the story behind the making of th documentary.

MATT O’NEILL: The Chinese government’s cleanup after the earthquake was enormous and extremely impressive. But when we drove from town to town, we heard parents complaining about schools that collapsed while other buildings stood. They were trying to get answers from officials and after getting the cold shoulder they were fed up and decided to head to the provincial capital. Jon happened to come across the march and he called me and said, “Quick, come here.”

JON ALPERT: I immediately knew this was an unusual situation—the extraordinary emotions of parents carrying photos of their dead children, and the desperate attempts by local officials to stop the march. It started with 130 parents and took on epic proportions. They marched for over 20 miles with increasingly large numbers of police trying to contain them. As the march grew it attracted huge crowds of observers. By the time it was finally stopped there were hundreds of police and government officials and thousands of people watching and listening to the parents tell the story of the deaths of their children.

O’NEILL: Lots of protests happen in China by pensioners or activists protesting local corruption—but you never see any images. In this case, because of the chaos surrounding the earthquake, it took time for the authorities to get to us. We were both threatened with arrest and felt the situation heating up. So we started using back roads and keeping as low a profile as possible. Having both worked in China before, we knew what can happen, so we decided to ship our hard drives with the video out of the country. When we got a call that they were safe, we went back out to film a memorial ceremony. But it was crawling with cops and security forces, and we decided it was time to head back home.

Jon Alpert films a protest by bereaved parents in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake that struck the country in 2008.
ALPERT: We made plane reservations for the next day and went souvenir shopping. As we were leaving the supermarket we were surrounded by cops. “Are you arresting me?” I asked the police officer. “No, you’re not under arrest.” “Then talk to me here,” I said. “I’m not going to the police station unless I’m under arrest.” I was stalling for time while Matt was calling the consulate. They finally told us that it would be better to go for questioning and hope we wouldn’t be arrested, because if you are, there is no bail. I refused to go in the police car because, I said, “I didn’t know where they were going. Why don’t I just take you all out to eat? Obviously you’ve been following us all day and your crew must be hungry.” The guy was smart enough to know that I was jousting with him, and nice enough not to say “Listen, get into my car before we whack you.” A lot of his guys thought that would have been the proper thing to do. Eventually we wound up at the police station but in our own cars. They wanted to question us individually and I refused. ‘We’re a team and we stay together.’ I didn’t want them comparing stories. In the end the compromise was to make two teams.

O’NEILL: Our passports were taken and we were interrogated for eight hours. They wanted the names of people we spoke with. We said we couldn’t remember and we couldn’t remember where exactly we had been. And there was the really gratifying moment where they said “We would like to see what you have been filming” and I said, “Sir, I would love to show you but unfortunately it’s already out of the country.” The next week, a total crackdown began on the media and Japanese reporters were attacked and beaten. We were the first ones to get caught and get pushed out.

ALPERT: The government was desperate to contain and stop the marchers. One of the things that scared them was that the news spread like wildfire basically due to cell phones. The days immediately following the march were an extraordinary inspiration to parents all over Sichuan who then began their own protests.

O’NEILL: Almost two years later parents are still trying to get answers. They filed a lawsuit that was subsequently smothered. Two of the activists in Sichuan province were sent to jail, one for five years and one for 11 years. The parents who tried to go to Beijing to petition the government have been harassed, detained, and returned back to their local area.

ALPERT: But the parents’ struggle is known. There have been 700,000 hits from China on “China’s Unnatural Disaster.” They’re heroes to people in China. Because they have not given up they see this film’s nomination and potential win as their last chance to draw attention to their situation. We’re up at the plate for the team, the 138 parents, and if we’re lucky enough to win, it’s not really our victory but it’s their victory.

“China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province” and other DCTV documentaries can be viewed free of charge at DCTV, 87 Lafayette St.