Ximei (2019), directed and written by Andy Cohen with Gayle Ross, is a documentary about Ximei Liu, a human rights activist focused on equal rights for AIDS patients. Ximei contracted the disease due to China’s “black blood” economy, and fights against state-inflicted discrimination of a disease the government gave to her in the first place. (BV: 4.0/5.0)
Review by Junior Associate Beatrice Viri
In the ’90s, a dark part of history transpired — the “black blood” (plasma) economy in China’s Henan province. People, mostly peasants, would exchange blood for money to keep themselves fed, and to have a roof above their heads. However, conditions were unsanitary and the blood was screened poorly; it is estimated that at least 40% of the blood donors and receivers contracted HIV. Ximei Liu is one of those afflicted. At around age 10, Ximei had her scalp ripped off in a farming accident and needed a blood transfusion, and the blood for her operation was contaminated.
AIDS patients are shunned and discriminated against in rural provinces, as due to lack of proper health education many still think AIDS can be spread. Patients are largely unable to work due to disease, but people conversely will not not hire them because of the disease. They are forced to travel to specific hospitals for care, but facilities are understaffed and medicine is outdated. HIV and AIDS are state-sanctioned diseases, yet the state has done little for reparations. Because of this, Ximei takes matters into her own hands and starts a halfway house for those suffering like her. Providing shelter and food to those traveling for medical services, Ximei does what the local government neglects.
Despite her own struggle with the disease, Ximei is altruistic and optimistic. The documentary is filmed over several years, and we get to know Ximei, her family and other AIDS patients intimately and humanely. Despite persistent poverty and negligence, Ximei gets married, adopts a child, and keeps fighting for AIDS patients and their simple right to exist without repercussion. Local officials bar her from traveling and attempt to limit her services, but Ximei combats them with the attention of the international community and is even able to travel to Switzerland to bring awareness to her cause.
Ximei (2019) is a no-frills account of corruption, systematic oppression, and poverty, yet also manages to incite hope and passion for life with a strong-willed, resilient heroine. The footage isn’t edited to be pristine and perfect, but that’s the point: it’s raw, and real, and human. The subject of a pandemic swept under the rug is nothing short of depressing, but by including some of the happy moments in Ximei’s life, a ray of light shines through.
One of the scenes that’s particularly evocative is when Ximei goes to Switzerland and reaches down to touchstones in a public park. She muses about how the stones can be used for cooking and to sharpen knives, but her husband, a fellow AIDS patient tells her to put them back as they’re probably private property. The stones are simply for decoration, but to Ximei, who has only known poverty, they can be used in everyday life. That moment was incredibly humbling, and shows just how deep into poverty most of rural Henan is, how many peasants live — it is depressing and infuriating, how the government has neglected and failed these people.
Still, are a few aspects of the Ximei (2019)’s logistics that I’d like to know. The crew had to leave the province for some periods of time, and faced a backlash from local officials who attempted to confiscate footage, but how did they have the money to film for so long in the first place? How did they come across Ximei’s story? How did Ximei get the money to go to Switzerland, and to keep her halfway house operations afloat? It’d be useful to know more about the production, but those questions fall short to the documentary’s subject, and message of perseverance. Ximei’s spirit is unbreakable despite all she’s gone through and reminds us as activists to keep trudging on in harrowing times.
© Beatrice Viri FF2Media 12/20/2019
Photos: Ximei Liu and another woman in Ximei
Photo Credits: AC Films
Does Ximei (2019) pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Yes! Though with a documentary, it hardly matters.