Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Real Lives of China's Paramedics

A scene from Emergency Room, a documentary by Zhou Hao
The Chinese Documentary Film Festival 2013 started last week and runs until September 28. It's been going for six years and this year features the largest program to date. I didn't know much about the festival until YTSL told me about it and we caught a documentary last night at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

It's called Emergency Room by Zhou Hao made this year. At first viewers don't quite understand what is going on because there is no narrator. We literally follow paramedics in ambulances as they go from one call to another.

Here's the trailer:

One of the first calls is to a small lane and the paramedics, wearing white lab coats, have to carry their equipment to find a young man who has fallen from a low-rise apartment block.

But he is already dead by the time they arrive. After a quick assessment, one of the paramedics say that although the deceased was a drug user as evidenced by the needle points all over his arms, the man succumbed from his injuries from the fall.

The paramedics want the police at the scene to sign a paper proving they did attend to the scene, but the undercover police refuse to do so, as they admit to chasing the man and he jumped trying to avoid them. As a result the police are worried about being blamed for his death.

And so we get a peek into the life of paramedics, the people they attend to, how hospitals work in Guangzhou and the overall health system.

Paramedics only make money when they successfully collect someone and take them to the hospital and are paid by the patient themselves or family and friends.

However, when they ask the patients they bring to the hospital to contact their family or friends, many of them say they don't have any. One man is stabbed after a fight with a fellow factory worker. He is brought in but claims to have no friends, and yet doesn't want to tell his family where he is because he doesn't want to be seen as a failure. He starts to cry thinking of his predicament of being fired yet again.

Another is a drug user who wanders aimlessly in hospital clothes and yet claims to be looking for his sister, saying his father is in prison, his mother disappeared. One paramedic has to look after him and is annoyed that the original hospital won't take him -- this prevents the paramedic from going out on other calls, and thus earning more money.

But he takes his responsibility seriously and looks after the addict the best he can under the circumstances, much like baby sitting a petulant child.

There are a few cases of drinking too much alcohol. When the paramedics arrive, the groom-to-be has died from excessive drinking. They try to jump start his heart using a defibrillator many times, but he is long gone.

Meanwhile the grooms' friends are in a state of shock, wailing and kneeling in front of his body as the paramedics go through the motions even though they know he is dead.

Then there's another case of drinking too much but this time the guy is lucky, after he is given an injection inducing him to urinate. The young man even boasts that he usually drinks even more than tonight and how drinks with really high alcohol content leave his mouth feeling really dry. Really?

We also meet a woman who is apparently pregnant but passed out from an overdose because she had a fight with her husband after discovering he was having an affair. An acquaintance brings her into the hospital but then has to find the woman's parents to pay for the hospital fees, to no avail.

The woman comes to and smokes in the hallway, admitting she is pregnant. She claimed she wanted to kill herself and then staggers off.

Documentary filmmaker Zhou Hao
Meanwhile we watch some trainee nurses practicing for their exams, while full-time nurses complain about how men don't want to go out with nurses because they work long shifts.

The documentary shows how sad people's lives are -- migrants who come to the city alone and hardly have any friends they could depend on to help them, others in depressing situations, and then those who are drug addicts whose families have deserted them and turn to hospitals for help.

It also demonstrates how the paramedics only have time to deal with symptoms and nothing is being done to address underlying social problems.

What is even more impressive is how this film was made -- with a digital camera -- and the paramedics are willing to be so candid. Periodically the cameraman -- probably the director -- asks them questions to further explain things or talk about their livelihood, but for the most part the camera watches them, with some amusing results.

Hao was previously a trained photographer working in state media before he switched to documentaries in 2001. His best known work is Senior Year, about the dreaded annual gaokao or university entrance exams, while Using follows a drug dealer.

Emergency Room is a snapshot of what is going on in Guangzhou -- but could easily be a picture of every other city in China. We hope Zhou continues to make these kinds of documentaries to show us what is really going on in the mainland -- warts and all.


  1. "At first viewers don't quite understand what is going on because there is no narrator."

    Interesting point! To be honest, I've seen so many documentaries with no narrator that I've become used to it... but guess some people might not be!

    In many ways, I find documentaries like this one very "slice of life" anthropological. Sure there's editing and other film-making choices going on but it does feel like one get lots more angles to a story -- and lots more stories -- than the more directed and polished documentaries with definite agendas like, say, "An Inconvenient Truth" or "Inside Job".

  2. HI YTSL -- well as it goes on you realize there is no particular story but there are several vignettes that are pieces that make up the entire picture. Now that I think about it, if it was narrated, then it would seem the director had a particular agenda. But he doesn't -- he shows (most) of what hospital staff see everyday.