Director Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s film ‘Children of Chinese Prisoners’, which is being broadcast on Dateline, follows of the journey of several Chinese children growing up in an orphanage called Sun Village, after their parents are imprisoned for violent crimes.
Schröder says he found the film difficult to make emotionally, and was personally affected by the stories of the children; “I’ve previously never cried while shooting my films, but on multiple occasions I did cry,” he said,
“But [I] also found hope and an extremely heartfelt compassion that I never anticipated I would find in such a devastating place.”
Below is a transcript of an interview Schröder did as part of the AFI film festival:
What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?
Working alone in the field with my story and subjects, with a reality that so many times are stranger and stronger than fiction is something that appeals to me very much.
What inspired you to tell this story?
As a father of two small boys, I’ve come to know how dependent you are on your parents, and how much you look up to them. My sons are five and eight years old and I am without comparison their biggest hero. What would happen if the police one day knocked on our door and took me away, so that they would never see me again? It’s hard to imagine, but it’s the realities for the children in Sun Village.
These children have been dependent on their parents all their lives, and are now left with big scars on their souls. They have to adjust in the most difficult way imaginable. I wanted to explore how these children would adapt and tell a universal story about survival and a longing for close relations.
How did you find the subject(s) in your film?
Reading an article about Sun Village and how these innocent children had to adapt to their unjust fate I felt compelled to find out more, especially in a country where I anticipated there would be no one that would pick them up and help. When I then learned that the founder of the orphanage, Grandma Zhang, has dedicated her life to these children, I wanted to look into how they learn to forget their past, how they fight the stigmatisation and what makes them hope for a better future.
What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?
Making the film was not easy, but with a small and dedicated Chinese crew, that shared my eagerness to tells these children’s story, we managed to get behind the otherwise closed doors and inside the hearts of the boys and girls looking for hope and happiness.
I’ve previously never cried while shooting my films, but on multiple occasions I did cry, but also found hope and an extremely heartfelt compassion that I never anticipated I would find in such a devastating place. This I am extremely grateful for. And I hope that will be projected through the film in the same way that I felt it.
What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?
I have strong intentions to create a nuanced documentary film about the children, their legacy, but also about the hopefulness that they learn to have. Children are survivors!
The children of Sun Village are tested on this instinct in an extreme sense and I wish to tell a story about how there is a universal connection between people: an instinctive thrive for survival and happiness. I believe this is a universal story that will speak to all cultures and languages as we all have parents that we rely completely upon. But everyone also knows how it feels to be left alone on one level or another.
Why are documentary films important today?
As a filmmaker, I believe one has a responsibility towards the audience to lay bare that this is my own truth. There exists no single truth and therefore it is important to me to be as much on my main character’s side as possible. I portray this story through the eyes of the orphans and the elders at Sun Village, so that the audience will go through the same feelings as our main characters. I will not judge, but let the audience make their own opinion on what is right and wrong.
I think this point is important today, where opinions are falling more and more to the right and left. It’s important to acknowledge that we are 6 billion people and we all have different opinions. And that it is okay to have different opinions. And as a filmmaker it is our responsibility to enlighten the world about what is going on, as much as we possibly can, for the world to be as tolerant as possible.