Who Killed Our Children

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Pusan International Film Festival

The catastrophic earthquake that broke out in China’s Sichuan province on May 28 has held world media in thrall with stories of sacrifice and courage, and from official Chinese media, eulogies on the PLA’s heroism and the government’s concern. Pan Jianlin’s documentary “Who Killed Our Children” could have been a discomforting voice of dissent that exposes the widespread problem of shoddy construction in China, which some assert caused or exacerbated casualties. However, Pan’s filmmaking approach is impressionistic, guerrilla-style, unsupported by hard data and journalistic procedures.

The hot button topic of “tofu” buildings, especially schools that suffered huge casualties, is widely discussed on a civilian level in China. The news may not have filtered fully to a western audience, so this work will be of interest to them as an entry point to the subject. Festival invitations should follow its Pusan premiere.

The film is shot in Qingchuan, one of the disaster areas where a middle school collapsed killing hundreds of children. Pan highlighted four issues that cause the parents outrage, but the most bitter conflict concerned discrepancies between the official death count jointly provided by the school and government agents and the parents’ own tally. Former school staff and government officials argue that the casualties are only caused by nature and logistical reasons rather than human error.

Pan limits the scope of his investigation to interviewing the victims’ parents, some surviving students, and members from the school and rescue team. Subtitles before end credits claim that the filmmaker was detained by police for two days and had most of his footage confiscated. This may or may not be attributed to the incompleteness of background and data available in the screening copy.

As a result, neither the allegations nor defense can be proven by any concrete evidence. The most deep-rooted and far reaching problem of construction malpractice is hardly examined at all, with just one person representing the “Entrepeneur Relief Volunteers” asserting that it is a nationwide problem. There is not even any full view given to the site where the school collapsed, and no conclusive figure on how many similar cases exist.

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