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The Unforgettable Fire: <i>Karamay</i>

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

Karamay (dir. Xu Xin)

Known as the “12/8/94 Incident,” a devastating fire broke out in the Karamay Friendship Theater in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, killing 323 people, 288 of whom were schoolchildren. Chinese director Xu Xin’s Karamay, which premiered at this year’s 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival, brings back these nearly erased memories of the past.

With little knowledge of the incident at the time it happened, Xu Xin expected the fire to be just another unwanted accident when he first started the project. However, in the making of the documentary, where he interviewed over 60 people related to the victims, Xu gained a much deeper understanding of the underlying tragedy. He tries to convey this agony, shooting in black-and-white with no music or voice-over throughout the film’s somber six-hour running time.

“Everybody keep quiet! Don’t move! Let the leaders go first!” was the instruction shouted out by one of the organizers when the fire broke out, as reported in the Far West China News. Despite having escaped the fire unharmed, the government officials failed to call for help on time and unlock the alternative exits of the theater house. In the aftermath of the fire, a state investigation put 13 officials in jail and compensated families who had lost their members, but the victims still demanded an official public apology. The Sunday Times’ Far East Correspondent Michael Sheridan reported in a news article on May 6, 2007:

In 1995, 300 families of the dead and injured sent representatives to the National People’s Congress in Beijing, supposedly the venue for Chinese citizens to seek justice and a fair hearing. They were led off by security guards to a walled government compound, where five buses were waiting to ferry them back to the airport. The group were then escorted through special channels to a plane bound for Xinjiang.

Fanhall Films, a Chinese website dedicated for independent film productions interviewed Xu Xin regarding the making of Karamay. He reflects on how making the film has changed his view on the tragedy:

When I started this project, I did not intend it to be a documentary about a catastrophe. I only perceived it to be a fire accident, it was inadvertent. I was only interested in knowing how the parents of the dead children were doing. I wanted to capture their present conditions after the trauma, but I did not know about the forgotten details of the incident.

The complete transcript of the interview is available in Chinese on their website. The official trailer of Karamay can be viewed at the website of the 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival.

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