China / 2009 / Mandarin

Directed by Xu Xin

Still from 'Karamay'It happens in the same way each time: the camera approaches a grave stone and lingers in front of it, long enough to read the inscription. This is repeated again and again, a ritualized pattern, setting the tone and form of the film that follows. The austere finality of stone, reflected in the flinty grayscale, gives way to the personal stories carved into it. Each marker is for a child who died when a fire broke out at an assembly on December 8th, 1994 – although the ones we see are only a fraction of those that sit in the midst of this flat void, commemorating a lost generation.

Director Xu Xin chooses to begin his documentary in a cemetery on the outskirts of Karamay, a planned city in China’s far north-west where most people work for the national petroleum company. In the decades since oil was first discovered there in the 1950s, Karamay went from being merely a spot in the desert to a city of nearly half a million, populated by workers coming from all over the country. On the day of the fire, the city’s top students were putting on a performance of Mao’s eight model plays at a recently-renovated venue called the Friendship Hall. They came from different local schools, as well as different class and ethnic backgrounds. In the audience were visiting provincial officials (already good and drunk from being feted all day) as well as members of Karamay’s political elite. Midway through the performance a curtain, too close to one of the powerful stage lights, caught fire.

What followed was a human catastrophe, although it can’t rightly be called an accident. All but one of the exits was blocked, and while an inept fire department showed up late and without access to water, a local man pried one of the metal grates open to find the bodies of children piled one meter high. Like the event itself, the aftermath was chaotic; some people were chastised for having caused death, only to be exonerated for having saved lives; many who bore direct responsibility escaped any repercussions. An air of ignominy was spread far and wide while the authorities worked to dampen any talk of what had happened.

Karamay is a sober rendering of what happened that day and what has happened since, told mainly by bereaved parents in long, bitter soliloquy populated by thoughtful silences. Sometimes it is a couple being interviewed, sometimes a single person. Some of them were young enough to have  had children again, some were left to grow old alone. As most of them were interviewed in 2007, it had been thirteen years since the fire. They all speak in a well-informed, benumbed way, having had years to research their loss and the loss of others, as well as the conditions that caused it to happen. It is their main solace, however none of this knowledge seems to help their situation, only to further unravel their emotional loose-ends.

While there are many different stories, a few things are presented as undeniable. All who comment on the event attests that, while 288 children and 35 adults died in the conflagration at the Friendship Hall, all of the attending city officials escaped unharmed. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s based on numbers. And the majority of the children who didn’t make it out died of smoke inhalation, not from the fire itself. Survivors recounted that they were told to stay in their seats and wait until the party officials had safely exited.

Still from 'Karamay'It’s difficult to imagine children sitting in their seats while a dangerous fire spread, but the parents keep going back to that image. It speaks of how ingrained deference to authority is. They talk about footprints on the backs of the children, among other grisly findings. One former teacher, who had the experience of leading her third grade class to safety while at the same time losing her own son (part of a different class) to the blaze, talks of the nomadic life she’s led since then. Her marriage fell apart, she tried living elsewhere, but ended up back in Karamay. Of all the parents she seems especially vacant and haunted, and understandably.

All but four of the visiting Xinjiang officials died in the fire, while every one of the city leaders (who also served as petroleum execs) made it out first and unscathed. A sentiment of social Darwinism permeates the commentary and analysis that followed: the executives were smarter, and thus survived; those who didn’t make it died because of their own stupidity or physical weakness. Even posthumously, people are utilized to support hierarchy.

The parents interviewed for the film, including those who had been steadfast party members, seem shocked by the handling of the tragedy. One father is incredulous at the safety measures that are ramped up after an accident, and this one was no different. False solutions were applied to already shoddy work. The labor leader who oversaw the construction of the new building (having just become deputy mayor as well) had given the building contracts to his relatives, who, according to one Karamay parent, skimped on the fire proofing. It’s telling that no one involved in the construction was prosecuted. A few Friendship Hall employees got light sentences, and that was it. At the sentencing the Vice CEO tells everyone that the take-away is for them all to work harder, while people in the audience doze off.

The tears of the local party secretary during a televised speech strike some the parents as heavily instructed. In a grim post script, the man later successfully petitioned to have his own driver executed for having destroyed a car. A Karamay mother says, “with a party secretary like that in control of our lives, you think he’d ever help us?” The interviewees talk exhaustively of the various lapses in judgment, the cynicism, and the apathy that led up to the fire, and that continued on, salting the wounds left by it indefinitely. What were those unnecessary metal grates doing there in the first place? one father wonders. An official overpaid a contractor to install them, and received a kick-back for it.

The parents were forced to leave the children’s bodies for a hastily-done mass funeral the next day, which employed heavy machinery to do the interment quickly One father, when they tried to prevent him from taking his son’s body home for a traditional Islamic funeral, told them that the family are ethnically Hui, and they let him go. A woman sobs as she relates her recurring, unending delusion that her son may have survived and later woken up in his coffin. She says she never cried in front of her family, not even her husband, but would sneak out into the desert to cry alone. (Similar things did apparently happen, as another parent, later in the film, talks of finding a living girl in the crowded, makeshift morgue, so chaotic was the collection and examination of the bodies).

Even the most basic courtesies, besides the funeral expenses, were not afforded to the families. More than tragic, it was shameful, so no high-ranking officials visited or sent their condolences. Despite being among the worst non-natural disasters in China’s history, the fire went under-reported and un-memorialized. So much was done to repress, or at least to shape and reframe the news about it so as to avoid getting anyone powerful into hot water. The officials involved can’t all be callous or inhuman, but the party as a whole is. And those who have gotten good positions in power are afraid to say or do anything that will jeopardize their position, or worse, bring punishment. Punishment tends to be arbitrary, symbolic, and rarely addresses root problems such as corruption or exploitation.

Still from 'Karamay'Many of the parents have had the whole foundations of how they view child rearing, society, and authority completely undermined. The party has meddled in their lives for so long, forcing them to work hard, marry late, to have only one child, and to teach that child strict obedience to the state. That Karamay is a city developed by the national petroleum corporation, its municipal officials doubling as oil executives, it’s no wonder that the citizens are treated as mere workers, to be abandoned when they lose their usefulness or become troublesome.

Their frustrations are those of living in a distant outpost of a neglected province. You almost can’t get farther from Beijing and still be within China’s borders. Some of the people we meet were born in Karamay, but many moved there for more opportunity. “Are we really a society here?” asks one father. As a conglomerate, the city has no effective political organization, and thus had no protocol for the emergency. The man characterizes everyone along the way – from the Friendship Hall staff to the firefighters to the nurses to the morticians – as shamefully inept and ill-prepared.

Thirteen years on, the parents are still raw, angry, as though trapped in an airless jar, sealed since the day of the fire. There’s little to do but brood, and a generation of children has been wiped out who would now be adults. For the parents who have been forced into early retirement, being childless is all the more acute. It’s the government’s way of sweeping them under the rug, casting them out for daring to voice their grievances. If people aren’t given cause – or the opportunity – to question the social project that they’re serving, they probably don’t look at it in a macro way, or consider its causes and implications. Centering on one event, and relaying multiple stories from it, Karamay interrogates the larger conditions of life that these people face, ones that had formerly given them comfort, security, and sort of second-hand optimism, but which ultimately failed them, left them at a dead end, out in the desert.

The ones without children now live only on a meager pension. They talk of bodies and minds run down to sickness by worry and pain, of marriages falling apart, of getting ostracized for being childless. Some have adopted. None have moved on. In a Confucian culture that puts so much importance on children for one’s future, these are people banished to be without a future, or at least to live it out in a barren and directionless way. What they yearn for are collective solutions, anathema to the aggregate mentality that they’ve now learned to despise. Cadres wanted to get rid of the Friendship Hall after the fire, to banish it from sight, but many parents stopped it from happening, putting their bodies in the way of the demolition. Its facade stands there today, in the middle of a sterile concrete plaza that boys use as a skate park.

The machinery that keeps the voices of the affected from being heard is so heavy-handed that it simply brushes aside all threats to its hegemony. “In China they just wipe you out,” laments one of the fathers, barely exaggerating. Another describes getting a verbal death threat from a member of the internal security service. Even if they didn’t become entirely troublesome to the party, their shaken faith caused them to become less useful to the company. Thus they were discarded, as must happen in a baldly capitalist company town.

One father talks about an earlier filmmaker who had been arrested for trying to interview victims’ parents in the same way. The necessarily low profile of director Xu and his crew means the film is mainly confined to these living room interviews and a few clandestine stills of the city. Although their experiences since the fire are all different, there’s a compelling consistency to the narratives they relate about the incident. Black and white is not a financial concern, as it was in the days of film. It’s a choice of attitude. Meanwhile camcorder footage serves as the primary archival material, and bad tracking turns a public protest of parents into a mass of blinking faces.

Still from 'Karamay'A campaigning mother describes being forcibly thrown into a van and threatened. In China, if the elites don’t want you to be heard, then you may as well not exist. But it’s not as though dissent doesn’t occur; brave people speak up every day for the environment, for the poor, for minorities. Many of them pay dearly for it. As one parent notes, Chinese people know the power of petitioning. But in places like Karamay their marginality keeps them down, and their insulation from one another keeps them vulnerable. They managed to block the demolition of the building, but haven’t made much progress beyond that. Arguably, if the state had recognized their loss and let them mourn publicly, such a move as preserving that horrific site wouldn’t be necessary.

One mother says that relatives encouraged her to use the tragedy to get ahead, to allow her silence to be bought and get a little compensation. She says she refused, although other “December eighth” parents did not. “Am I too suspicious, or are they too naive?” she wonders aloud. It still feels wrong, she says, to focus on her own life and those of her surviving family. There is a dissonance, the instinct to obey state authority – which is hardly particular to modern China – clashing with the older funereal customs. With the roof of state-sanctioned behavior burned away, so to speak, these are people looking up into a cold and pitiless light that hadn’t been there before. Beyond the act of honoring the dead, they want change to come of the tragedy. But the odds against that happening seem to grow greater and darker with each year.

The event wasn’t memorialized on the city’s “100 most important events” commemorated on its 50th anniversary. This has to be due to the degree of the party’s culpability – not just police and politicians, but journalists and TV execs have been instrumental in covering it up, none of them daring to do something that would give the C.C.P. a bad image. “Our children are still nameless,” one father sighs. It’s not grief that’s keeping the families going in this waking nightmare, it’s the injustice. With the past in such disarray, it’s no wonder the future makes even less sense to them. The parents aren’t satisfied that a perfunctory few people were thrown in jail for the tragedy. They know it was more than unsafe lighting and locked fire exits; it was something more profoundly cultural and inequality-based that killed hundreds of children that day. And beyond emotional trauma and memories, the event does effect the families in real ways, and semantics have enormous importance. Martyrdom certificates for the kids would mean a lifting of the social stigma on the parents, and also grant them a certain amount of financial security given out by the government.

Still from 'Karamay'Over the film’s six hours, we meet so many parents who have lost children, and the stories start to become inseparable. But then the film concludes with Yang Liu, one of the children who survived. Although it is thirteen years later, and she is now a young woman, she seems to still be a child, as though the trauma of 1994 had frozen her in that same state of wistful optimism with which she performed for the party officials. With grafted skin, confined to a wheelchair, and living out much of her life in hospital rooms, her consciousness nonetheless flies outside the windows. She sings a verse that she wrote, about a cooling night breeze and happy children gathered together to play music, which seem an almost spiritual antidote to the burns that she endured. Starting with her song, we only hear her at first, over a black screen, as though we are being steeled for seeing shape that she is in. She talks of visiting the graves of her comrades on the eve of Children’s Day, and how she once had a sense that they were still alive, even then. But the passing of years has erased that feeling, and now she would be unable to return to the cemetery.

Karamay‘s extreme length is a way to crush banality like a clump of salt, and to collect many aspects of the scattered stories that have gone more or less unheard. It also gives us a feeling of the weight of the time that has passed, the dim and silent living rooms, the cruelly still desert air. It captures the tedium of living on the periphery, where family is the primary amusement, and love the only solace. But it is an area emptied now of all but rumination, isolation and fettered anger. One father says, with honesty, “I can’t think of anything to say. Can we stop recording?”

In an amazing essay on the film entitled “Disposable” Bodies on Screen in Xu Xin’s Karamay: Biopolitics, Affect, and Ritual in Chinese Central Asia, Darren Byler sums up the film, writing that it “is about the corporeal embodiment of social abandonment and failure.” He contextualizes the backgrounds of many of the people interviewed in it, noting that the majority (as is the case in many Xinjiang cities) are Han, and had given up family networks thousands of miles away to work in the oil fields of Karamay. So they already existed in a state of artificial isolation, doing so in order to take part in an economic dream.

Nationalist displays such as the performance the children were doing on the day of the fire, thus, had an intensified importance for creating an atmosphere of solidarity and optimism. Such rituals, forever blackened for the parents who lost children, leave nothing in their absence, neither social fulfillment nor security. The Uyghur and Kazakh parents have religion and local connections to support them at the very least – not to mention larger families, as the one-child policy did not apply to them. But the Han transplants have fewer of those emotional cushions, and thus seem more aimless and alone.

Towards the end of the film, a reference is made to an even deadlier celebration hall fire that occurred in the city of Yining, in the far North of Xinjiang in 1977. Nearly seven hundred people died then, again mostly children. The government was able to suppress seemingly all details of that tragedy (aside from the casualty numbers and that it happened), and to block any investigation of it – no doubt through similar methods of threats, isolation, and censorship.

In China today, small, digital cameras and anonymous blogging have resulted in an alternate historical narrative, one that will be difficult, if not impossible to silence. They have also made this monumental film possible. The Karamay fire, while it happened in pre-internet China, nonetheless was documented by home camcorders and news cameras. The incident is still very much alive and smoldering in the lives of many people. Its victims and chroniclers won’t let it fade so easily. A high-profile exposé of it finally appeared in 2007, by journalist and blogger Chen Yaowen, who was censored but whose story was picked up by Reuters. It paved the way for Xu’s film, which has since reached a wider audience.

It is seriously doubtful that there will ever be a documentary called “Yining,” about that even worse outrage – certainly not one so direct and lucid, so gut-level and unflinching as this one. Any photographs or reportage relating the event must have been either destroyed or locked away, the survivors silenced. With no documentation, it may be remembered, but how can the scope and significance of it be made real again? With Karamay, Xu recreates an unimaginable human toll, through broadcasts from the time, unearthed police recordings, and the frank testimony from the parents. And of the “nameless” 288 children of Karamay who died: Xu names them, grouped by school, each with age and ethnicity listed.

Still from 'Karamay'Perhaps the more that people independently address events of importance, away from the dominant story that depicts things as happy and organized, the more transparency and accountability will take hold in Chinese political life. More and more filmmakers are taking on this task; Huang Weikei’s Disorder (2009), Zhao Liang’s Behemoth (2015) and Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks trilogy (2003) are but a few films from the last twenty years that lay bare the betrayals that the industrialized state perpetrates against its people. The Chinese government’s first instinct during any catastrophe is to cover it up, if possible. But plain speech, identification with those affected, and fearlessness – all of them comprising the essence of Xu’s Karamay – can change that mentality, and can thus make people safer and more empowered. As long as there are people who are brave enough to tackle them, events such as the December 8th fire will never again pass into the unapproachable vaults of the forcibly forgotten.

2 Responses to “Karamay”

  1. hg said

    How was it even possible to make the movie? Was it screened in China?

    • chaiwalla said

      While the film is an impressive achievement, we should keep in mind the value of digital video – low-cost and unobtrusive DV. The Chinese government may block websites but they’re not omnipotent. It apparently screened at festivals in Hong Kong (less surprising) and Guangzhou (much more so). Maybe with the cat being out of the bag, suppressing it would look worse. In any case besides a few screenings it doesn’t have wide release over there, AFAIK.

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