On June 7, the first day of the gaokao entrance exams, a 22-year-old “repeat” student leapt to his death in Liaoning province, the latest victim of what the Ministry of Health fear is an epidemic of suicide among Chinese youth. Suicide is the leading cause of death among 15 to 35 year olds, reported the Legal Daily, but the subject has long been considered taboo in society.
Nanjing resident Chen Si (陈思) is one of the few who have stepped up to take responsibility. Since 2003, Chen has prevented more than 330 suicides on Nanjing’s Yangtze River Bridge, now the world’s most popular suicide spot. Jordan Horowitz and Frank Ferendo set out to capture the emotional toll of Chen’s mission in their award-winning documentary Angel of Nanjing, and spoke to TWOC about portraying this sensitive issue and the project’s ongoing developments.
Can you tell us a bit more about how this began?
Jordan Horowitz: I first heard about this story because a really good friend of mine showed me a small article that she had found on a website. This was probably around 2004…I printed it out and put it in a drawer. In 2010, I read another article by a different author, and when I realized [Chen] was still doing that, and the number of prevented suicides had increased, I decided I had to do something about it, so I shared it with Frank and together we decided to see if we could do something with it.
How did you get in touch with Chen?
JH: Chen keeps a blog of the people he saves on the bridge…it’s basically a diary, so that if depressed people find his blog, his number is on there, they can call him and he can help them.
Frank Ferendo: One day, we just bought a ticket. I said, Jordan, I think we should go try to find this guy. We hadn’t even gotten in touch with him, until the day before we set out…we asked him out to dinner and told him the plans, we said: ‘We want to make a movie about you,’ he was like, ‘OK, sure’.
What were some of the challenges? Did operating in a foreign country pose obstacles?
FF: We definitely thought there were going to be obstacles to getting permission from the government to shoot, so we decided to risk it and do it on our own. At the beginning, we had two sets of [hard] drives we kept in separate places; we were afraid maybe we would get in trouble. Ultimately it wasn’t
really a big deal that we were running around with cameras and shooting stuff. I think the language barrier caused some minor problems. We had a translator, but Jordan and I don’t speak Chinese, so a lot of the time we were shooting and we had no idea what we had captured until afterwards.
JH: The translator would give you a rough sense of what happened in the overall scene or something, but usually it would be poorly translated…It wasn’t until many months later, when everything was transcribed and subtitled, that we knew which scenes were the most powerful. I’d say one of our biggest challenges was hiring the right translator. We went through a couple who didn’t work out for various reasons. The biggest was that it was a really tough job. All the time Chen was on the bridge, Frank and I were on the bridge following him, it’s very difficult—it’s really, really cold in the winter, it’s really hot in the summer. I don’t think most of the translators were cut out for that. After a couple of months, we found a young filmmaker named David Ding, just out of college. A lot of people around town didn’t speak very good English, but he did. He asked us to teach him filmmaking, that’s what he really wanted. He did such a good job, we ended up giving him a co-producer credit as a way of thanking him.
Any difficulty getting into the lives of the people Chen helped? Were some hesitant or resistant?
JH: When Chen initially approached somebody to save them on the bridge, we kept our distance. We filmed it almost hidden-camera style…Chen has an electronic scooter he rides up and down the bridge; Frank and I each got similar scooters and were following him from quite a distance. When something happened, we would pull off to the side and film from very, very far back on very long lenses. So most of the time they didn’t know we were there at first.
FF: We initially thought we would then be able to check up on them, and tell their story…but once Chen saved them, they weren’t so comfortable letting us into their world.
What were some of the most memorable moments while filming?
JH: There’s one deleted scene…As I was going home, I noticed this guy crying and pulled over. Something about his expression just looked all wrong. I asked David to eavesdrop on him, and he did, and he told me he is saying goodbye to his family, giving away the password [to his cards]—it’s happening right now. I told David, you need to talk to him. David, being 20, 21 at the time, was very shy. He said, ‘I don’t know what to say to him’ and I said, ‘You gotta be Chen right now, you’re the only one that can do this,’ and he did…We eventually had to end up calling the police, and have them remove him, because there was no other way to get him off the bridge.
Did you find out what happened to him?
JH: We didn’t, and that happens a lot with Chen. He gets someone out of immediate danger, and then he never knows—who is to say if they go back or not? And that was the case with us. The cops took him away and said they held him for observation and that was it, we never heard from him again.
What stayed with you after filming?
JH: It made me realize how small my problems were. The things that I was stressing out about were nothing in comparison. Some of these people had nothing except the shirt on their back…It made me think about compassion. There are invisible people that we walk past every day, 99 percent of the people pay them no mind, and Chen is the one guy who does.
FF: During the film festivals, Jordan and I would sit, and when the film would play, we would go out and present [and] say, ‘Let’s watch the first scene or two to see if it’s playing OK.’ Jordan and I would end up sitting there every time, watching the full movie…what we went through in that entire year, it brings back so many emotions.
JH: Another deleted scene…after Chen had saved another woman. I pointed my camera at him and didn’t say anything, but he turned to the camera and started talking. I only found out later that, as he was looking below, there was a playground, and he was talking about the kids playing down below. He spoke about how it was breaking his heart, thinking these kids would grow up and would be these people who might have all these problems. He was crying and super emotional…Even though it didn’t make it into the film, it was probably the defining moment of the film for me.
“Leap of Faith” is a story from our issue, “Go”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.