Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The film looks rough and sometimes footage has been recorded on phones or filmed at odd angles on cameras hastily concealed, but this gives it a certain authority."

During the 1990s, the Chinese government made a tempting offer to the peasants of Henan province: become a blood donor and, on each occasion, receive the equivalent of a month's earnings in payment. it was an offer made in other parts of the country too, but in this remote rural province there was a problem: those running the donation and transfusion services apparently did not know how to decontaminate their equipment. As a result, an estimated 300,000 people contracted HIV.

"My face used to be round," says Ximei sadly, powdering her sunken cheeks for a special occasion. She misses her long hair too. One days, years ago now, it got caught in farm equipment. She woke up in hospital two days later. Whilst unconscious, she had been given a transfusion, and it was this that sealed her fate. But Ximei isn't quite like the other peasants afflicted in this way. She can read, she knows her rights, and she has never stopped working to improve the lives of everyone living with HIV or AIDS.

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In reality it isn't so much the disease that's the problem as the poverty and stigma that attend it. Some drugs are available but are not among those provided by the state healthcare system, so people already struggling to feed themselves have to pay for them out of their own pockets. Support payments are available to those unable to work but they're barely adequate. There is supposed to be compensation but applying for it requires extensive form-filling and most of those affected are illiterate. By organising them, Ximei inevitably risks making enemies of people in power. By watching this film, which was produced by Ai Weiwei, you can help to provide the international attention that will improve her chances of remaining safe.

Ximei's health isn't great but she has a busy personal life alongside her campaigning work and the practical support she provides for those in worse shape. Andy Cohen's camera follows her through all of it, whilst she's shopping and cooking and visiting relatives and tentatively embarking on a new relationship, In doing so, it challenges myths about life with chronic illness that are every bit as prevalent in the West. For all her physical weakness, Ximei has a formidable personality and a quick intelligence that keeps her interesting to watch. Through her story and those of her friends we get a glimpse of what life is like more generally in Henan.

The presence of all this ordinary coming and going grounds this film and makes it more striking when members of the security services, sometimes in plain clothes, interrupt Ximei's activities. The film looks rough and sometimes footage has been recorded on phones or filmed at odd angles on cameras hastily concealed, but this gives it a certain authority. Seven years' worth of footage have contributed to it, and though the lack of any clear conclusion may frustrate some viewers, it presents a slice of social history whose value is likely to increase with time as the wider framework within which it sits becomes clearer.

Reviewed on: 27 Oct 2019
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A documentary about a Chinese peasant woman fighting for the rights of people who contracted HIV as a result of blood transfusions carried out without proper hygiene.

Director: Andy Cohen, Gaylen Ross

Writer: Andy Cohen, Gaylen Ross

Year: 2019

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Switzerland


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