“While these unbearable images of devastation, distress, suffering and destitution flickered

across our screens, the wall of indifference was also deeply shaken.” Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean

This is not an article about Armageddonstyle disaster movies. Nor is it about the disastrous state of documentary funding. No, it’s about how documentary and docweb makers respond to more natural disasters.

The social shockwave from the magnitude 7.0 earthquake which rocked Haiti had a profound resonance for everyone, everywhere. I felt it as a producer from Montréal, where a hundred thousand Haitian-Canadians live. Natural disasters are increasing exponentially, affecting 250 million people per year. The world is suffering through Katrina-scale cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes; floods, fires and droughts; tsunamis and earthquakes, and the disaster of a natural world disappearing at the hands of human greed. many connect climatechanging human activity with natural disasters. Nobody can doubt the impact on life, health, social organization and political economies.

Inside Disaster

Natural disasters enter our consciousness because of pervasive media and international connections. Many documentary films are being made about such disasters. Recently, at China’s GzDOCs festival, I noted six films about the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Here, I examine three case studies – one Chinese, another from Italy and an ongoing film in Haiti – as a way of thinking about the impact of documentaries. I asked my participants to extrapolate from these questions: What role did they think the documentary form has in such disasters? To fill in information that mainstream media refuses to touch? What are the differences between mass media treatments, classic documentaries and new-form docmedia? Should they propose long-term solutions to mitigate the conditions that contribute to such devastation? As linear docs transform into docmedia, I asked how they used cross-platform possibilities for content. Do traditional docs still dig deeper where ephemeral pop culture, social media and the blogosphere cannot go? And, as ever, I was interested in the legacy of the work

At 14:28 hours on May 12, 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake destroyed Bei-chuan city, in China’s Sichuan province. It was among the deadliest earthquakes; 90,000 were killed, and 11 million were made homeless.

Filmmaker Du Haibin (Along the Railway, Umbrella) arrived two days later for preliminary shooting, returning after seven months to follow up. The result is a powerful two-part theatrical documentary, 1428, a cinematic, observational film, which takes us into the lives of a handful of survivors in the aftermath of disaster. It won the top doc prize at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.

The film is the flip-side of the official coverageof heroic efforts. There are scenes of shared grief as a family looks for a missing child in the rubble of a school dorm. Desperate entrepreneurs scrounge for scrap metal wherever they can.Photo-ops are organized as government officialstry to manipulate the optics of caring. A ghostly handicapped man becomes the leitmotif. Grievances emerge about rebuilding schemes and the resettlement of refugees.


The film is co-produced by Ben Tsiang, who gained experience with SINA, one of the largest webnets serving the world’s Chinese community. Ben is a founder of CNeX, the abbreviated form of Chinese Next, a social enterprise for innovative documentaries, working out of Beijing and Taiwan. CNeX runs a non-profit foundation, festivals, workshops and forums, and regularly finances thematic, independent Chinese documentaries. For Ben:

“The Sichuan earthquake had a natural impact in China. It also affected the social and political landscape. 1428 critically captures these social-political aspects of Chinese society through the eyes of disaster survivors. Documentaries offer multi-dimensional aspects and a collateral monitoring of disasters. They offer grassroots, powerful statements, which can either be big-picture observations of the process of alleviating the disaster or examine the underlying social fabric, which can be amplified at such a moment.”

Docmakers’ ethics and long-term endurance offer a complementary lens for a civil society. They catalyze the justifiable attention that such disasters deserve from society. Hopefully, documentaries can offer candid social learning out of such disasters. This work has captured a vivid interaction among survivors and their negotiation with life and policies in a postdisaster town.”

“Currently, we use web-media as a primary promotion platform for the theatrical release of the film and the DVD. I believe there are good opportunities for web-intended documentary, but it has to go beyond simple uploads of footage. The supply side of web-doc work is easier than the demand side. Web production must be sustainable.”

For director Du Haibin: “Disaster becomes a special backdrop on which the angels and devils in man’s nature become nakedly transparent. Among aftershocks in the ruins, abuses of the collective system, lack of trust between people and local governing bodies, betrayal among survivors seem to make life more and more absurd. This is a reality that the mainstream media did not want to record. New seeds could be sown in ruined grounds, a destroyed house could be rebuilt, lost lives might be replaced by new births, but if we don’t have the courage to face our feelings, to reflect on our past, to review our behavior, the limits of our human nature will drag humanity down. Disaster may come again.”

On April 6, 2009, a 6.5 richterscale earthquake hit the mountain region of Abruzzi, Italy. Four hundred died and 60,000 inhabitants were left without homes. The Italian government set up emergency tents to house the population.

From Zero: People Rebuilding Life After the Emergency is a long-term, web-based serial documentary, which also ports onto television. On the webnet, we negotiate interactively with stories from members of the emergency-tent city: Nicoletta, Rosa and a dozen characters in 100 episodes (or more) of their post-disaster lives. As a pilot prototype, three months of professionally produced micro-docs were uploaded, in daily episodes. These slices of life can be streamed from anywhere around the globe, but the site also works locally as a community rebuilder.

There are interviews with psychologists bringing closure to the victims, poignant episodes of children drawing pictures of dream houses, a visit to a neglected backgarden of a condemned house, a trip to a damaged music store under which is buried a guitar once played by the Beatles. The project is becoming a longterm cross-platform doc, branching out as a global portal connecting a world of current and future disasters.

The Italian pilot is the test ground for webisode formats, production strategy and audience response and the first content for the global platform. From Italy to post tsunami land exploitation in Sumatra, to rebuilding Haiti, the plan will be to follow the everyday lives of people slowly building a new beginning.

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