Rong Guangrong’s debut film Children are not afraid of Death, Children are afraid of Ghosts is a disturbing yet strangely moving experimental documentary that explores the traumatic lives of China’s so-called left-behind children plagued by poverty and abandonment. This highly personal road movie, which won the NETPAC AWARD 2017 at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, was inspired by a 2015 group suicide involving four siblings living in a poor village in Guizhou province. The four, whose ages range from 5 to 14 years, decided to end their lives by drinking pesticide after being left for years to fend for themselves.
Rong, a Beijing-based photographer and poet who had attempted suicide in his childhood, took to investigating the case with his camera, only to be driven out of the village and have his footage confiscated. Undeterred, he travelled to nearby villages and began documenting the lives of surviving children in similar dire straight. Many were abandoned by parents who were divorced, ill, or otherwise had to work in larger towns to support the family. The upshot is that these youngsters must cope without adult supervision against a society full of what Rong called “civilized beasts”—local bullies and organized criminals that prey on the weakest links in China’s far-flung rural society leaving them largely defenseless.
In his focus on the four siblings, Rong keeps going back to the same question: What kind of fear was haunting the children to the point of suicide? Unable to answer this question satisfactorily, he started probing into his own childhood, which was punctuated by abuse and abandonment. Along the way, he added poetry, stills, animation and long personal narratives that dwell on his childhood fears, regrets and hopes as an adult and parent of three children.
This eclectic mix can at times make the film a challenge to watch, as the narrative style seems incoherent at times. Worse yet, we end up with a lot of blackouts accompanied by disorienting sound effects because much of the rather repetitive travel footage was taken in the dark since Rong needed to research at night to avoid being caught by local authorities. Even some shots taken during the day are often quite grainy and out of focus. Similarly, Rong’s recounting of his confrontations with local authorities using animated child’s play, though rather ingenious, drags on for eight long minutes. The documentary ultimately feels a bit unfocused and self-indulgent, and comes across more like a rumbling journey about self-discovery than an investigative quest about justice involving children in the poorest parts of China.
That said, there is something very stirring about this haunting, soul-bearing journey. By revealing his own vulnerabilities and adopting a child’s perspective, Rong allows us to have a better sense of the fears and apprehensions felt not only by the four siblings, but many others plagued by similar desperation. In this way, Rong is able to connect the case to a larger, systematic problem that’s troubling modern Chinese society. And despite the grim subject, Rong manages to capture, in his black-and-white stills, the beautiful smiles of innocent children going about their daily grind, providing a flicker of hope that some of them may emerge unscathed despite enduring lives shrouded in darkness.
Children are not afraid of Death, Children are afraid of Ghosts is not for everyone. But for those with patience and an open mind, the film is a thoughtful meditation on the many social problems that plague the lives of rural Chinese children today, including poverty, abandonment, hunger, adults who let them down and the indifference of society.
Children are not afraid of Death, Children are afraid of Ghosts is showing on May 7 at the Chinese Visual Festival.