By Robert Koehler, published on 22 May 2019
Any future book on documentary film history will have to mark a place of honor for Xu Xin's "Karamay." Even among the field of exceptional work by China's independent documakers, Xin's fourth film is an astonishing achievement on every level, as its six-hour running time details the nearly unimaginable Dec. 8, 1994, tragedy in which 323 were killed and more than 130 injured, most between ages 6 and 14, in a community-center fire. Producers are shrewdly considering a shortened version, which should boost visibility with buyers.
Like so many previous mainland docs, Xu's film has been made to fill in a part of the historical record left untold by official Chinese media, which, with rare exceptions, have maintained a blackout on the Karamay disaster and its heart-wrenching aftermath. Shortly after its Hong Kong fest premiere, the pic was banned domestically; it has gained an impressive rep on the fest circuit.
The parents of kids killed in the fire (and of one notable survivor) speak to Xu's black-and-white camera frankly, emotionally and fearlessly, in monologues that run the gamut from pure grief to hot political anger, which a few admit is "traitorous."
Xu has somehow managed access to extraordinary video footage shot before, during and after the fire, clips of which he inserts to powerful effect during the parents' testimonies. The damning impact of this accompanying imagery, some of which includes hospital and morgue rooms piled with young, horribly contorted corpses, is not unlike docu footage of Holocaust victims. As such, even though it consists of largely continuous, static wide shots of parents speaking, "Karamay" is most definitely not for the squeamish, and is as politically toxic a film for Chinese high officialdom as anything made in the past decade.
Opening text scroll, over a long fade-in of the oil-rich city of Karamay in northwestern Xinjiang province, provides a basic context, including the fact that the city is owned by the government-run Xinjiang Petroleum Bureau; city officials thus have dual status as company staffers and Communist Party members. These members, along with visiting officials, were attending a song-and-dance performance by grade and middle schoolers in Karamay's Friendship Hall when the fire broke out. Scroll concludes noting that "city officials escape(d) with no more than minor injuries."
This last sentence is the film's mainspring, as parent after parent contemplates how and why officials escaped alive, while children died in the hundreds. The first two hours profile stages of grief, including a potent sequence at the city cemetery where parents commemorate the tragedy's 13th anniversary, their sense of loss unmitigated by time.
But as "Karamay" proceeds, a darker reality unfolds. Parents describe firsthand accounts of the assembly hall's well-known terrible conditions; everything, from poor lighting to cheap stage curtains and shoddy stage lights (the fire's main cause), made the place a disaster waiting to happen. Fire trucks arrived late, and without sufficient water. Citizen rescuers were left to improvise.
Worst of all, children were ordered by city officials to stay in their seats and wait for the staffers to exit first, an order defined by just a few brave teachers, one of whom is interviewed.
The sheer impact over six hours of processing details and emotions is difficult to measure, but emphatically leaves viewers altered by what they've seen and heard. Xu's approach to the testimony recalls Wang Bing's similarly shot "Fengming: A Chinese Memoir," about an old woman's recollection of brutal decades as a political prisoner in the Maoist era. The only possible quibble here is that parents are not ID'd onscreen (a closing credit scroll doesn't clarify identities), and yet they may be more universal for their anonymity.