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The hunt for China’s lost children

2012-12-10 15:49 Global Times     Web Editor: Zang Kejia comment

In a scene from the forthcoming film Living with Dead Hearts, a visibly upset grandfather wonders whether his missing grandson is keeping warm enough for the winter months and whether he'll be setting off firecrackers during Spring Festival like other children. It's one of many emotionally heavy scenes from the just-completed, debut feature-length documentary from husband and wife team Charlie Custer and Leia Li.

Living with Dead Hearts focuses on the search for China's kidnapped children. According to Custer's research, around 70,000 children are kidnapped each year in China. They are sold into a number of illicit trades such as prostitution and slave labor. The lucky ones find new families who raise them as their own. Some, however, inevitably end up living and begging on the streets. Almost all kidnapped children will never see their biological parents ever again.

Metro Beijing conducted a Skype interview with director Charlie Custer - now residing in Maine, US - to find out more about the film's origins, delicate subject matter, and when Beijingers might be able to view the finished project.


Among the expat community of Beijing, Custer is known for founding, a website considered to be one of the essential sources for current events in China. Now three years old, the site attracts a staggering 45,000 hits a month.

"I'd been doing ChinaGeeks for a while, and in the fall of 2010, I got into the idea of doing something more visual," Custer said. "It's too easy for things to be abstract if things are only written. I thought if I wanted to help explain China to the West and tell these stories, I'd have to do it visually."

Custer said that in November of that year, he read an article by Austin Ramsey in Time magazine about former kidnapped children in the 1980s who were now adults. Having purchased a camera, Custer and his wife completed a short documentary about the urban-rural divide in China.

"That gave me enough confidence to film a serious subject matter and I knew given time and resources, I could address the subject of street kids and the kidnapping issue," he said.

Taking inspiration directly from Ramsey's article, Custer began researching and fundraising immediately.

No help for the helpless

According to Custer, during the course of filming, he tried to talk to a number of children on the street but said that the ones he did manage to talk to were largely unresponsive.

"If you ask these kids directly, 'Where are you from?' there's a decent chance that they're going to give you a fake name," he said. "The chances of them telling the truth are almost nothing. They get bounced from place to place ending up in a city that they're not even from."

Further investigation enlightened Custer to the fact that the "official organs" that China has for dealing with street children is far from perfect and that more invariably, children end up back on the street even if they have been involved with a shelter home at some point or another.

"The way that it works is ridiculous. If you're found on the street in Beijing and go to a Beijing rescue center and they decide that your place of origin is in, say, Xinjiang [Uyghur Autonomous Region], they'll make plans for you to go to the closest city outside of Beijing but in the direction of Xinjiang," he said.

A lot of these kids, he said, at some point during this arduous process find it easier to go back on the street: "They don't trust any of these people to begin with."

Not for the faint hearted

Living with Dead Hearts focuses on several parents and families whose children have been kidnapped as they strive to deal with their unfortunate predicament. The film also touches on the experience of being kidnapped and growing up in a strange family, as told from the child's perspective.

Custer is quick to point out that due to the heavy subject matter, the film is not an easy ride for audiences. "We had a viewing at Brown University (Custer's alma mater) last Friday. I felt terrible because it's really depressing. We didn't set out to make such a horrifically depressing film."

Living with Dead Hearts may not be for the faint hearted. None of the families he followed got the happy resolution Custer said he hoped for. However he's still in contact with his subjects so he said, "We will definitely update the film if something changes."

But harsh realities are what make this film educational and essential viewing for Beijingers and China dwellers at large. Currently, Custer is in the process of submitting Living with Dead Hearts into film festivals worldwide. He's aiming for a release date of summer 2013.

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