Any future book on documentary film history will have to mark a place of honor for Xu Xin's "Karamay."

With: Yang Liu. (Mandarin, Ughyr dialogue)

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.

Popular on Variety

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 defied 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.



Production: A Huangniutian Works/Asian Cinema Fund/Xu Xin Documentary Film Studio presentation of a Z & X Prods. production. Produced by Zhu Rikun. Directed, edited by Xu Xin.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, DV), Xu; music, Yang Lin; sound (stereo), Lou Kun. Reviewed at AFI Film Festival (World Cinema), Nov. 7, 2010. (Also in Hong Kong, Locarno, Vancouver film festivals.) Running time: 371 MIN.

With: With: Yang Liu. (Mandarin, Ughyr dialogue)

More Film

  • Parasite Movie

    'Parasite' Enjoys Record Box Office Boost After Oscar Wins

    Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is reaping box office riches after its groundbreaking Oscar best picture win. The twisted South Korean thriller collected $5.5 million over the weekend, an exceptional 234% increase in ticket sales and the biggest post-Oscar boost for a best picture winner in the past decade. In the seven days since the Academy [...]

  • Nikita Pearl Waligwa

    Nikita Pearl Waligwa, Actor in Disney's 'Queen of Katwe,' Dies at 15

    Nikita Pearl Waligwa, an actor who appeared in Disney’s biographical drama “Queen of Katwe,” has died, according to BBC and the Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor. She was 15. Waligwa had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2016 and seemed to recover a year later. However, in 2019, another tumor was found. “Queen of Katwe” [...]

  • James Marsden and Sonic (Ben Schwartz)

    'Sonic the Hedgehog' Dominates Box Office With Mighty $57 Million Debut

    Paramount’s family film “Sonic the Hedgehog” ignited over Presidents’ Day weekend with $57 million in North America and $100 million globally, the biggest showing ever for a video game adaptation. “Sonic” is expected to earn $68-70 million through Monday, one of the best results for the holiday weekend. The better-than-expected start is even more notable [...]

  • Shaun the sheep

    How '80s Sci-Fi Films Inspired 'Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon'

    Shaun, everyone’s favorite sheep, is back, and this time he’s facing aliens and robots in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.” Directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan teamed together on this film for their first full-length collaboration. While the two have been working at Aardman Studios, Phelan’s background was as a story artist and Becher’s [...]

  • Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE

    Box Office: 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Speeding to $65 Million Opening Weekend

    “Sonic the Hedgehog” is speeding to a $65 million opening at the North American box office this President’s Day weekend, according to estimates. Paramount’s action-adventure, based on the Sega video game character, had been pegged to generate $40-45 million prior to its launch. Should estimates hold, it could break the $54 million record set last [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content