[Review] Stories that matter: Screening of 3 documentaries on 8 March 2016

I’ve got to be honest – I picked the screening on 8th March 2016 for my review for two reasons, the larger of which was that the stories had a public health theme, a topic that I am interested in and am familiar with; and the lesser reason was that the screening slot fitted my schedule. But after attending the session, I learnt that the three documentaries had one additional similarity – that they were made by three photographers from the internationally renowned VII photo agency. An agency who represents several of the world’s pre-eminent photojournalists. In a sheer comparison of bang for buck, I must have gotten the most value possible for my dollar.

Dying to Breathe starts with He Quan Gui, a middle aged man who used to work as a gold miner, sitting in his backyard, narrating a letter to the President of China. We learn that he is ill, having worked in the coal mines for years without having taken work safety precautions and he has developed pneumoconiosis as a result – at present an incurable disease that restricts its sufferer’s breathing. He requires constant oxygenation to survive even as he wheels himself around his house - all while being connected to a supply of oxygen from a cylinder. His wife is his caregiver, taking care of his daily needs, giving him massages, keeping his spirits cheery by singing with him or to him despite his poor prognosis. In fact, she forbids him from dying and goes into a hysterical state whenever he goes in respiratory distresses.

And can we blame her? HQG is an example of a good husband, having worked in the mines for long hours as the pay was better than any other thing he could do back in his village. Dying to Breathe is one of many documentaries that I have come across in the last few years, depicting the difficulties people from developing countries such as China face, especially with less than ideal work environment conditions due to lack of knowledge, governmental non-intervention, poor legislation of occupational health laws etc. Filmed over 4 years, I thought that this was one very ingenious documentary that combined the use of different interview styles, mediums (whatever was convenient), and was praise worthy in that the photographer could work on it over such a relatively long period of time.

The Ninth Floor was my personal least favourite. Maybe because to me, drug use is a social ill that is really mostly a choice and I brought my personal bias with me when viewing it. However, getting the addicts to talk and to film them – still deserves commendation. I saw the birth of a baby bring hope to her parents, who were both heroin addicts, giving them the motivation to get clean, and through their story, I saw some beauty despite their dire circumstance. It was quite sad though, that because the mother was using heroin while she was pregnant, her baby might have developed foetal deformities, which thankfully was not apparent in the video.

Syria’s Lost Generation stood out as being the most audacious of the lot. I imagine that it must have been the hardest to film, but having had two other emotionally charged pieces before it meant that I had little emotional bandwidth left to feel for the characters. The female interviewee shared about how her education was disrupted, and that her parents were not able to be placed in the same camp as her. What will become of this generation of people in Syria? I wonder. War is brutal, and I, who although have thankfully never experienced it first hand, will probably get to see the aftermath of this one in my lifetime. 

Photo Credit: Ed Kashi/ VII Photo Agency

Reviewed by Gwen X
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