The suicide itself, never fully clarified, was widely covered in the international press (for instance by the Guardian, CBS, and Al Jazeera) as well as by the China Daily, the country’s national English-language newspaper. This is the starting point for Rong’s film. The International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Children are not afraid… premiered on January 28th, advertised it straightforward as a documentary film, but it is not. The opening credits include the disclaimer that the story is purely fictional but any resemblance to actual individuals or events is real. Do not expect any truth in the form of reporting, in addition to a confrontation with the filmmaker’s own past, memories and experiences. Both as a child and father.
Rong explores both the physical environment in which the drama took place, as well as the socio-economic environment. The films starts with a long take of the distant village that hosted the drama at night, a scene that recurs several times. Dogs bark and we hear Rong’s breath, making the atmosphere of the deserted village tangible. Rong also explores the green countryside by day, its cornfields, hills and small roads. He has an eye for details, like a large toad hopping through one of the village houses (while his own kids play with little, delicate frogs). The socio-economic exploration focuses on the poverty of the village population, absent parents searching for a better income elsewhere, and their abandoned children left to venture for themselves, unprepared for the real world out there. When he initially wants to visit the village, Rong and his accompanying friend Chen Hua are met with hostility, despite the fact that the story has been covered in the press and is hardly a secret. He applies a strategy to enter at the hottest time of day, when everybody is dozing off, and to first hang out a bit, getting in touch with some local children, and slowly finding his way further in later on. This strategy is only mildly successful, as the villagers do not like intruders, and fear prevents Rong from eventually asking the most important questions.
But, he starts out by establishing himself as a father and acting out this role by attending to his own children and reading them stories. He does the same later on in the company of two small brothers whose older sibling, they claim, bullies and threatens them – and is not looking after then but instead preoccupied with his smart phone. He is 13 though. Rong delves into his own past and candidly remembers how his mother prepared for their own suicide. While initially breaking the ice by comparing himself to these two kids, he later changes perspective with the two brothers, and contemplates his feelings as a kid ready to go. He does not recollect fear as much as parental fights, an absent father, and charity out of pity that aggravated him – and ghost stories. The suicidal siblings, whose act comes so close to his own past, were left unattended; apparently nobody cared for, or about, them. According to Rong, death was the only dignity they could choose. Rong uses a wide range of visual styles. He combines observation with interviews, includes slow motion and fast forwards, and at specific points freezes the frame into a black-and-white still. It serves as an X-ray over which he contemplates in voice over. His problematic exploration is visualised by his continuous drives towards the village and out of it, hitting, at the end, a dead end. In addition, he has his own son recount his experiences in the village with his toys – some of the original footage had to be deleted under threats.
One of the men threatening him is the father of some of the kids he befriends. Rong concludes there is a lot to be said against him – but at least this father did not abandon his kids, so who is he to judge him? With its mix of styles and deeply personal approach, Children are not afraid… is a provocative self-examination at the edges of China’s economic boom and a forceful condemnation of indifference.