China, the most populated country in the world, is home to over 61 million children who have been left behind in rural villages and towns while their parents work in big cities. Most of the children suffer from anxiety, depression and emotional trauma; as a result, some of them end their lives.
When in Guizhou Province – one of the poorest in China – four children (aged between 5 and 14) were found dead and their deaths were declared as suicides, Rong Guang Rong, an artist and a documentary-maker, decided to conduct his own investigation into the tragic passing of the children, knowing that he might face an opposition from the local government. He was not wrong; the moment he stepped into the village and started asking questions, he was detained by the police and, before he was released, his footage was seized and destroyed. Even despite that, with everything that he had experienced, Rong Guang Rong was able to finish the film and the end result is bizarre yet artistic in its own way.
The documentary-maker, while travelling around the village, analyses the incident; sadly in a superficial way. In the darkness of the night, he talks about the kids’ suffering, poverty and hunger; he also reminiscences about his own childhood. He asks questions such as: why would parents let their kids down in this way? Why are so many people indifferent to the issues of the children that were ‘left behind’? He tries to capture the children’s trauma of being rejected and unloved.
Rong randomly uses a stop motion footage when commenting on the local kids situation; he captures children’s face expressions on black and white pictures – mostly, you can see sadness and confusion – and uses natural surrounding for his film set. The audience learns, through text messages, how complex the whole situation is and how dangerous it can be if you tackle the wrong subject matter; many locals are not happy with Rong asking too many questions. We often see him driving through the night to avoid confrontation with whoever is against what he is doing. The camera work is nothing extraordinary, but there are a few interesting, experimental shots.
The way the entire documentary is built – with Rong’s narration, stories (I got lost in some of them; sometimes it is hard to tell if the filmmaker talks about his own childhood or of the childhood of one of the abandoned kids) and footage – is not what I would expect from a documentary. It is a multi-layered film, complex and sometimes bewildering. The topic of the film is remarkable, but in order for the audience to fully understand the full picture, it should have focused more on the complicated and heart-breaking matter of the children that were left behind; there was also not enough information on the suicide incident itself. It felt like the film was slightly unpolished and rushed, probably because the original footage was destroyed by the local authorities. Nevertheless, Rong Guang Rong tackled a valid issue of the modern China; one that often gets buried by the country’s authorities. Let us hope that there will be more films made on this topic – they can play an important role in the protection of the children and their future.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Children are not Afraid of Death, Children are Afraid of Ghosts