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.
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 these obliquely. Etzler uses Erbao’s story as a way to draw the viewer in from the external world of Chinese society – where she says she is «as timid as a sheep» – to what she calls her family home at the orphanage, where she is «as bold as a tiger.»
The young people – ranging in ages between late teens and early 30s – have a range of 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.
Some are blind; others have no use of their limbs but have learned to sew and crochet with their mouths. They are a mix of young men and women, but the young women feature as the heroes in Etzler’s film, along with the selfless Sister Wang and her helpers.
Like other villages ruined by the years of Mao’s industrialisation, the orphanage is a plain brick building in a grim landscape of concrete, dust, and ubiquitous rubbish dumps. But inside, the love and care the orphanage embodies is pervasive.
Etzler draws us into a world that no regular three-minute news package can show; is love and compassion for his subjects is clear from his English language voice-over, where even the occasional grammatical mistakes make for an endearing element in a film that celebrates the redemptive power of love – something he acknowledges is sadly lacking in today’s world.
The film weaves the story of the orphanage – always struggling to raise funds, lacking any support from the state where virtually every institution is under party control – into wider issues, such as the internment camps for the Uyghur Turkic-Muslim minority and China’s appalling record on human rights and press freedom. It is as if Etzler wants to show that even in China, a little bit of heaven can exist. And if it can exist in China – which spends far more on internal security than external – then there is hope for the world.
Left for the state
In essence, this is a bold film with a broad sweep that pulls the focus tighter to look at perhaps the one bright light the director found during his time in this vast country.
This is, however, China, and in the closing credits, the fate of the orphanage is bleakly revealed via a social media statement from Sister Wang in April 2021, with Etzler noting: «The communist regime did not spare this Catholic home after all. It nationalised it.
«This status appeared on Sister Wang’s social media: «Twenty-one children left for the state orphanage. I thank the party and the government! Leaders saw our hard work over the past thirty years and that we are not as fit as before. The state staff will take over the institute and take good care of the children. Please, do not worry. Thank you for all your support over the years.»
Screening as part of the 25th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival