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Meet the Academy Award Nominees: Jon Alpert-- China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

By Tom White

In the days leading up to the Oscar-cast, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Jon Alpert, director/producer, with Matthew O' Neill, of China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, which is nominated in the Documentary Short Subject category.

Synopsis: On May 12, 2008, a catastrophic earthquake hit Sichuan Province in rural China, killing nearly 70,000 people, including 10,000 children. In town after town, poorly constructed school buildings crumbled, wiping out classrooms filled with students, most of them their parents' only child. But when grieving mothers and fathers sought explanations and justice, they found their path blocked by incompetence, corruption and empty promises.




IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking? 

Jon Alpert: By being a failure at everything else. I really like people and I like helping them. And I'm curious, but shy. The camera gave me a tool to make change--and permission to talk to people and go to places I had only dreamed about. 
It was real difficult to make our first documentary. We had only made short films that we showed on street corners in Chinatown. When the editor of our first documentary (Cuba-- The People) asked us if we had any cutaways, we said, "What's that?"
It took about eight years to figure out how to make a vérité documentary (Third Avenue--Only the Strong Survive), and that coincided with being blacklisted by PBS. (Making documentaries about health care can be bad for your health.) We didn't make another documentary for 13 years (We roamed all over the world for NBC making sort of documentary poems.). That period ended with being blacklisted from commercial TV. (For showing the collateral damage from the first Iraq War)  
Lucky for us, we found a home at HBO and were able to make documentaries again 


IDA: What inspired you to make China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province?   

JA: Everyone who heard the initial reports from Sichuan was moved by the tragedy. This included Sheila Nevins at HBO. She called and asked if we wanted to go. We live and work 12 blocks from Ground Zero. I was filming at the World Trade Center (with Matt O'Neill.) on September 11; that's my backyard. And I'd been to New Orleans to film the aftermath of Katrina. We were curious to see how China would deal with this misfortune.   

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?  

JA: The biggest problem was that the Chinese authorities didn't want us or anybody else investigating why in many towns, all the buildings withstood the earthquake--except for the local schools. The schools collapsed, killing thousands of students. When we and the parents looked for an explanation, the authorities came down pretty hard. Eventually we were jumped by 35 plainclothes policemen, and we spent eight hours at the police station.  When the cops found out that we had already secretly sent our recorded material back to New York, they let us go. Other filmmakers were not so fortunate; some were beaten or spent months in jail.    


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?    

JA: In pre-production we knew we had to assemble a good team, and the inclusion of Peter Kwong, Ming Xia and Michelle Mi really gave us a team knowledgeable about Sichuan's history, culture and language. Adam Barton did a great job editing. But the film was transformed when we met the parents of the Fuxian Elementary school. With great courage they fought--and have continued to fight--to discover who was responsible for the deaths of their children.     


IDA: As you've screened China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?  

JA: I will tell you about two reactions. The Cultural Attaché at the Chinese Mission to the UN saw the film and said, "Uh oh. I hope this film doesn't win an Academy Award." The parents in Sichuan have managed to view bootlegged copies of the film on the Internet, and they know we are nominated. That was a nice surprise. And the parents hope the visibility of the Oscars will help their fight for justice.     


IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? 

JA: In bed. I had played hockey the night before until 2:00 a.m.--although at my age, with my declining abilities, what I'm still able to do on the ice probably shouldn't be called hockey. 


IDA: Although it's only been a month since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker? 

JA: Wouldn't it be cool if George Clooney and Woody Harrelson read my script and wanted to go to Afghanistan with me to shoot it? And if my mother, who will accompany us down the red carpet, gets discovered?


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you? 

JA: I'm real honored to be included in this group of short docs. The other films are all very good, and any one of them would be a worthy winner. For inspiration and gratitude, I'd select three people who had faith in our work and were friends: the late David Loxton of WNET, Steve Friedman of The Today Show and Sheila Nevins at HBO. Working with Sheila is like riding the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island; sometimes your hand is shaking a little bit when you get off, but you rush right back to the ticket booth because, for an independent filmmaker, it's a thrilling ride.   
Finally, I'm inspired by everybody at DCTV, our community media center in New York. I respect the dedication and hard work of the staff. And I am energized by the independent filmmakers and students who are there everyday, trying to use the camera to make our world a little bit better.  

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province will be screening Saturday, March 6, at 9:00 a.m. at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, as part of DocuDays LA, and Saturday, March 6, at 1:30 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media in New York City as part of DocuDays NY.


For more information on DocuDays LA, click here.


For more information on DocuDays NY, click here.