Documentary on the 1994 Karamay Fire

Xinjiang Documentary to be Banned in China

April 7 | 24 Comments

The 34th Hong Kong International Film Festival is underway right now and one of its ’10-not-to-be-missed’ films is “Karamay” by director 徐辛 (Xu Xin).  It is a film about the 1994 Karamay fire that the director readily admits won’t be screened in mainland China and had to be filmed under a shroud of secrecy.

Documentary of the Karamay Fire released in 2010

It’s the story of the 323 people who lost their lives in a tragic Karamay fire on December 8, 1994, and unfortunately it is best remembered by the line that caused all the ensuing controversy:

Everybody keep quiet.  Don’t move.  Let the leaders go first.

This documentary is of great interest to me because Karamay has been my home for the past few years.  I listened to the stories of the people who were present when smoke was pouring out of the theater and was horrified as they recounted all the bodies they saw.  Almost every day I rode my motorcycle past the front of this theater that sits as an unofficial memorial to what happened 16 years ago.

Click for more details on the 1994 Karamay fire

The film is 6 hours long and runs without any narration or musical score which, as boring as that sounds, must be captivating because the reviews are all positive so far.  Included are never-before seen videos of the actual fire and its aftermath as well as an interview with the only surviving student whose body is still disfigured by the burns.

Airing Grievances on the Karamay Fire

According to the film details, the subject of the film isn’t the children or the leaders who abandoned them, it’s the parents.  Until now these people haven’t had an arena to air their grievances, pain, and frustration.  The few who did make it to Beijing were immediately put on a plane back to Xinjiang.

Parents of the children who died in the Karamay fire

Parents mourn the loss of their children from the 1994 Karamay fire.

Parents distraught over their children lost in the Karamay Fire

Parents were distraught over how everything was handled

Karamay theater immediately after the fire

Karamay theater soon after the fire in 1994

I can’t find an official trailer for this film, but pieces have been posted on YouTube to give you an idea of what this is all about:

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About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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  1. Oh no, you posted a video from RFA. Here come accusations that you’re a secret agent for the National Endowment for Democracy and you’re being funded by the CIA.


    Josh on April 7th, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Ha! Notice I never explicitly cited them (I knew their logo would show up on the video), although I feel a little bad about that :)


  2. I had most of my primary education in China and ofc never heard of things like this until I’ve moved to the US. I don’t think the film maker ever expected the film to be shown on the mainland at all so the film ‘to be banned’ is really not much news.

    Even today, a search of karamay in chinese via baidu yielded first page results that claimed ‘leaders go first’ are complete lies… So even if someone in who grew up in China somehow stumbled upon this subject and search for it, all they would get is these crap results. :-(

    and just random comment on the rfa. rfa chinese really should just shut down. Very narrow focus of ‘news’ and completely biased on every piece of news it covers. The ‘news’ casters also speak terrible mandarin. Such a waste of tax payer dollars when there’s much better news service like VOA already out to do what RFA is supposed to do.


    Josh on April 12th, 2010 at 4:40 am

    Since he had to “secretly” film this documentary I would be very surprised to find that the director had any sort of illusions about mainland viewing of this film.

    I think it’s weird to see that baidu offers results that claim this is “lies”, especially since many of these leaders were tried and sentenced to jail. They weren’t public trials and the sentences weren’t exactly harsh, but still, it was admitting somebody did something wrong.

    Also, concerning your views of the RFA…I feel the same way about CCTV-9.


    pal on April 12th, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Actually, I feel the same about all the CCTV programs as RFA. I’ve spent almost half of my life in the states now and would definitely identify myself as an American at this point.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that even from ‘American’ perspective of promoting freedom and against totalitarianism etc., rfa is quite on the extremes. At least CCTV doesn’t force its broadcast in the states and cover nothing except protests, activists, and how bad the government is. And its Tibetan and Uighur channels might as well declare independence for Xinjiang and Tibet already. Even though those clearly are not the official US stand, RFA still gets taxpayer money to do these things. Now imagine if CCTV constantly interviewed Hawaiian indepence groups and native Americans, you know?

    My family initially found out about western views via very jammed but audible VOA shortwave broadcasts. VOA actually covered real news around the world as opposed to what we get on CCTV. It was something refreshing and became a daily event (ie. tweaking around the dial until we actually find some frequency not horribly jammed). If we would’ve found the RFA shortwave and heard only about how terrible China is (when it really means how terrible the government is..) we would probably not have lost interest and not listened anymore.

  3. hi, could u tell me where can i find this film?
    i’m longing to see it cuz i was born in karamay and luckly, i didn’t join that event.


    Josh on June 25th, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    I wish I could. So far the director has been very protective of his work and I have yet to find a way to view the film myself. I lived in Karamay for a few years and came in contact with many people who had something to do with that fire.

    I’ll send you an email when I’m able to find a way to view the documentary. Thanks for your comment!


  4. Hi there,Josh,
    It would be really appreciated if you could send me the film, which i’ve been looking for for years! Email: [email protected]


    Josh on August 8th, 2010 at 12:24 am

    You’ve been looking for years? It’s only been out for about 6 months.

    Unfortunately I haven’t even been able to see it myself yet. Still networking and trying to find a way, but it’s been difficult.


  5. Hey guys,

    I don’t know if you already downloaded Karamay (it’s been 2 weeks since the last post), but I think you can download this documentary at this website:

    I’ve just begun to dl it so I don’t know anything about the quality of the movie nor if there are eng subtitles at all….there are 14 parts and you’ll need to use Raysource to downlaod it(I tried the edonkey link but it didn’t work).

    See ya


    Josh on September 8th, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Thanks for that link. I haven’t been able to get it to work yet but I’m still very interested to watch the documentary.