In Depth

HBO, Tom Lennon & Ruby Yang: ‘Cinemax Reel Life: The Blood of Yingzhou’

“The Blood of Yingzhou District,” an HBO Documentary Films presentation, takes viewers to a remote, poverty-stricken region of China, where AIDS has taken a terrifying toll on the population. Around 500 children have been orphaned by the disease, a small but heartbreaking fraction of an estimated 75,000 children affected throughout China.

In most cases, their parents were stricken after donating blood in unsanitary conditions in exchange for food and money, and some of them passed on the HIV virus to their children.

Before airing on Cinemax, the 39-minute film had a theatrical release in 2006 and won the Academy Award for documentary short subject the following year.

Filmmakers Thomas Lennon and Ruby Yang follow several children over the course of a year in Yingzhou District in Anhui, about a 10-hour train ride from Beijing. Because of the social stigma and lack of information about AIDS, the children are seen in the film being shunned by neighbors, shuffled from relative to relative, or even left to survive on their own.

The genesis of the film was in 2003, when Mr. Lennon and Ms. Yang first worked together on a Bill Moyers series on the Chinese immigrant experience in America.

“At the end of the series, we felt like we wanted to do something more,” said Mr. Lennon, the producer of “The Blood of Yingzhou District.” “The AIDS issue was very scary, and no one knew how big it was. We wanted to get health messaging out to a Chinese audience, and recruited [basketball stars] Yao Ming [and] Magic Johnson and [movie star] Jackie Chan to do 30-second PSAs.”

In the course of that campaign, which was widely distributed in the Chinese media, .they became aware of a one-woman charity in Anhui province working with orphans, and they started filming.

“We began to understand it was a rich story and that we needed to make it as a film,” Mr. Lennon said. “It was sort of a sidebar activity to the main work in China, and we didn’t know it would get as much attention as it did. We followed the kids for over a year. You watch them develop and go through ups and downs.”

The documentary illuminates the personal struggles of children like Nan Nan, a young girl who was spurned by relatives after her parents’ deaths and left in the care of her teenage sister; the Huang siblings, who vividly describe their ostracism at school; and Gao Jun, a young village boy whose parents died of AIDS and is himself infected.

“As I made my way through these remote villages in Anhui, I could feel all the traditional stigmas and silences of Chinese family life. That’s what I set out to capture,” said Ms. Yang, the director of the documentary, who speaks fluent Mandarin and Cantonese.

The film opens and closes with Gao Jun, about whom little is known—even his age. It is only at the end that he finally speaks, yet throughout he reveals a strong desire to live, even as his relatives debate whether to keep him.

“The villagers in the region were extremely afraid of children who survived, who would normally be taken in by a relative,” Mr. Lennon said. “They couldn’t understand the disease, and they were terrified. Even if they were persuaded that HIV was not transmitted by casual contact, there was so much fear that if they took a child in, their own children could suffer.”

Yet even since photography began, there has been much progress.

“The happy news is it would be completely impossible to make the film today that we did then,” Mr. Lennon said. “The information and understanding is so much greater, but the delivery of medical programs is still not 100%. Even in the course of a year, you saw attitudes beginning to soften. There’s a strand of hope that’s very strong in the film: You see villagers reconciling themselves to the care of these children. It’s still a tough film to watch, but there’s a lot of hope.”