By Kyle Mullin
It took a little blind boy to help Carol Liu truly see rural China’s agony.
The documentarian’s latest feature, Restoring the Light, deeply contrasts most mainstream media accounts of the nation’s rampant development. Her movie, (which will be screened July 21 at 7pm at Beijing’s Redwall Jingshan Garden Hotel), is about those literally left in the dust- from farmer families as parched as their crops, to cash strapped fringe hospitals that can barely afford to tend to the those impoverished patients.
All of the rural issues Liu hoped to cover were personified by one of the documentary’s subjects, a boy named Li Juncheng. Liu met him accidentally. She was toting her camera up a sandy cliff, several miles from the nearest road, to film another family that morning. But she stopped after noticing young Li ambling behind a locked gate nearby.
“It was apparent his vision was impaired, yet he was beaming,” she says of Li, who suffers from a form of congenital glaucoma and lives in the isolated northwestern autonomous region of Ningxia, where most locals only understand an aged dialect. “As I neared (him), he started talking to me with excitement, trying his best to speak Mandarin, which came out in lively spurts.”
She interviewed Li on camera, then filmed him milling about a minimalist daily routine contained behind that locked gate. All the while his damaged silvery irises gleamed, laugh lines already creasing his baby face.
“As I grew to know Li, it became clear that he lived each day full of possibility. He told me he wanted to go to school and to become a truck driver, even if he could not see. He spent each day locked in his yard, and yet, I could not have met a happier boy.”
Liu says the boy’s positive attitude made the reality of his situation all the more heart wrenching.
“There is only one special education school in Ningxia today, which services a population of six million people and enrolls only 200 students,” she says of the staggering odds stacked against the visually impaired boy. “The school is seven hours away by bus from Li’s home and it’s a journey he must make, as a blind boy, at least seven times a year.”
She couldn’t maintain a filmmaker’s objectivity or distance for long. One of her production company’s partner organizations, Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Project, organized a network of volunteers to accompany Li and help him enroll at school and arrive safely.
But most of rural China isn’t so lucky, and Liu worked to capture the painful details of that inequality.
“My hope is that by humanizing the struggles of the under-served population and combining effective public outreach with partner organizations, the film can inspire greater humanitarian participation within China for its rural and disabled populations, while also presenting world audiences with a more complex understanding of China,” the documentarian says.
She adds that the film’s title is the perfect metaphor and mantra for rural China.
“In Chinese, to ‘restore sight’ means to ‘restore light.’ I like to think of Restoring the Light as a call to social good and positive change. Light dispels darkness and illuminates compassion and understanding.”
Beijing Community Dinner presents a screening of Restoring the Light and Q&A with the directorJuly 21, 7pm
Redwall Jingshan Garden Hotel, (near Jingshan Park at the Forbidden City)
No. 68, Sanyanjing Hutong, Jingshan Dongjie, Dongcheng District, Beijing. For inquiry/问路电话：010-8404-7979
Admission is free but space is limited, so please RSVP at [email protected] or [email protected]
For more information, visit www.restoringthelight.com