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The Sichuan Province earthquake of May 12, 2008, killed 70,000 people — including 10,000 children. It would have been horrible enough if that had been an unavoidable body count, but as “China’s Unnatural Disaster” proves, so many children never had to die.
“Disaster” does include scenes of parents weeping and keening. But it also shows building after building still standing, often office buildings and shops, right next to a pile of rubble that used to be a school. (“Tofu construction,” says one local, while another holds up a brick and is able to brush off the dusty “mortar” affixed to its side.)
The HBO documentary follows several locals as their grief turns outward and into protest. All they want is reassurance from their government that this can never happen again. Instead, they are stonewalled and ignored, and they’re blocked when they stage a protest at the regional capital.
When this happens in the U.S., you’ve got the makings of award-winning “60 Minutes” segments, complete with hearings, recriminations, lawsuits and firings. But because this is China, the story follows a predictably sad path: Officials insist that citizens must “trust the government” and that protest is “unpatriotic,” but “Disaster’s” cameras (manned by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, of Emmy-winning “Baghdad ER” fame) don’t lie. Amid the protest and the melee, the camera proves the lie that the Chinese government would like to propagate: That everyone’s one big happy family in communist China.
“Disaster’s” footage is riveting and at times difficult to watch, but this is important viewing. At times, the 40-minute documentary feels abbreviated, ending before most of the threads pursued in the main story conclude, but that’s a minor quibble. Instead, the documentary works on multiple levels: In revealing the raw deal the residents of Sichuan got, it underscores the importance of many of the rights taken for granted in the West. Without them, we’re all one rubber stamp or one shoddily constructed house away from our own unnatural disaster.
Airdate: 8:00-9:00 p.m., Thursday, May 7 (HBO)
Production: HBO Documentary Films, DCTV
Executive producers: Sheila Nevins
Supervising producers: Jacqueline Glover
Producer: Jon Alpert, Peter Kwong, Michelle Mi, Matthew O’Neill, Ming Xia
Director: Jon Alpert, Matthew O’Neill
Director of photography: Jon Alpert, Matthew O’Neill
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