A little bit of heaven

CHINA: The raw reality of daily life in China juxtaposes with a microcosm of kindness in a semi-legal countryside orphanage for handicapped children.

There is something of a mea culpa about Tomas Etzler’s engaging documentary about a Chinese orphanage, Heaven.

For many years a Czech TV correspondent based in Beijing, Etzler’s film is both a revealing glimpse into a privately-run Christian charitable orphanage located deep in the Chinese countryside and a confessional that allows him to unburden his soul after years of trying to understand China before concluding that decades of communist rule has created a deeply materialistic society of uncaring, stone-hearted narcissists.

Heaven, a film by Tomáš Etzler
Heaven, a film by Tomáš Etzler

Party callousness

Etzler, who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia in the eastern industrial and mining city of Ostrava, hates communism and found the unrelenting harshness of a society where one in five of the global population lives chronically oppressive.

He eventually inculcated the hard-edged rudeness of a world where passersby routinely ignore ill or injured people. To illustrate how soulless Chinese society is, he shows a couple of horrific videos of victims of road traffic accidents who might well have survived being knocked down if anyone had gone to their aid before they were run over and completely crushed by other vehicles.

Clips from his old TV news reports show just how hard it has been to cover China over the years: Etzler was arrested 23 times during his time as a correspondent, though not once had he broken any laws. The relentless pursuit of material wealth, the ubiquitous electronic surveillance of the population, and the official indifference to people’s true wellbeing have created a society where no one – not even party members – really believes in communism, and fear is woven into all social interactions.
Other correspondents and foreigners who spent long lengths of time in Chinese also reported the gradual hardening the director talks of; he adds that most long-term Western residents need several months of decompression once they leave China to recover from what is, in effect, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The film’s lengthy preamble – replete with a condensed video CV of the director’s years as a globe-trotting foreign correspondent who covered wars and disasters at all points of the compass – could be seen as self-indulgent were it not necessary to set up the story he tells: the love, sacrifice, and compassion of the nuns and assistants of a Christian order that runs an orphanage that cares for 30 or so disabled youngsters.

Etzler and his team of local Chinese producers (who remain nameless to protect them from state harassment) spent months trying to get access to state orphanages, which are known to be brutal places where sick and disabled children are often left to die. Eventually, they found the private orphanage – where every nameless foundling is given the surname Tian (heaven in Chinese) – and discovered a world far from the brutal Communist Party-inspired callousness towards people with disabilities.

All have been abandoned by parents who, under China’s previous one-child policy, did not want to bring up a child that was not healthy.

Hope for the world?

Tian Erbao is a 25-year-old woman who overcame her disabilities to go and study at an art school. The young woman with stiffened arms and hands that barely function taught herself to draw and paint using her feet and mouth. She produces small, beautiful pieces of art – although oddly, the film only shows . . .

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Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
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