“Living with Dead Hearts”, a documentary exploring child abduction in China, isn’t a pretty story, but it is an imperative one. The independent film, released this week, explores the heartrending topic of children being kidnapped and sold into slavery, sex or simply to another family.

12-year-old Lei Xiaoxia's parents tearfully retell their story.
12-year-old Lei Xiaoxia’s parents tearfully retell their story.

When 3-year-old Kienan Hebert was abducted in 2011, an entire country paid attention. For four days Canadian news agencies ran story after story. Child abduction was everywhere, permeating the collective Canuck consciousness. And when he was safely returned by his kidnapper, the relief and joy of the parents was shared across the country, and in the case of this Canadian, across the globe.

I couldn’t help but think of Kienan while watching “Living with Dead Hearts“, the long-awaited documentary about child abduction in China by husband-wife team Charlie Custer and Leia Li. The thing that struck me most about the heartbreaking stories captured in the film is the hopelessness suffered by the parents.

I’m sure I am not the only parent that has fantasized that if put in the situation they would pull a Liam Neeson on the kidnappers. It’s the thing we tell ourselves to push away what of course would be complete helplessness. Well, not complete — not if you come from a country like Canada at least. And that’s where Kienan’s story differs so drastically from the Liu, Lei and Yuan families in “Living with Dead Hearts”.

Not only did Kienan have an attentive media and sympathetic public, he also had a competent and driven police force. Listening to the Lei family tell how their 12-year-old daughter disappeared mysteriously, and how police failed to check surveillance tapes, school officials deleted the only potential clues to her disappearance, and her teacher didn’t bother to report her missing until many hours later (because he is a “very busy” man); the apathy of people who should care is startling.

This dispassion and outright indifference is repeated across the stories told in “Living with Dead Hearts”. Whether it’s a problem of culture, history, institutions or population; I really can’t say. I’m sure all play a part, and I’ve no qualifications to determine what exactly, or to what degree, creates this canyon-like disparity between how these things are handled in my home country and my adopted one. But the difference is frustratingly sad.

The film itself has been quite a journey — with nearly three years passing since the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund initial production. As an early supporter (in a very minor way), I received updates from Charlie throughout the film-making process, and his and his wife’s dauntless determination to get this thing made has been inspiring. For a feature-length film produced with less than what catering costs at a typical big-budget production, it is incredibly well done. You can tell that Custer and Li poured their souls into it.

In an e-mail from Custer about the film’s release, he mentions, “Although we considered a lot of approaches during and even after filming, ultimately we decided to make a film that we felt best reflected the reality of the situation as we saw it, rather than the film that told the best or the most entertaining story.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but after watching the film I believe it meant accepting that there just aren’t a whole lot of happy endings when children are abducted in China. That makes the film somewhat challenging to watch, but it also makes it incredibly imperative to do so.

“Living with Dead Hearts” is available for free streaming online, but those who want to can purchase a digital download in SD ($4) or HD ($7 — comes with bonus features like deleted scenes and director’s commentary). Actual physical DVDs are also available for $10 + shipping.


  1. Pingback: Documentary Film 'Living With Dead Hearts' Premieres - China Digital Times (CDT)

  2. Pingback: Documentary Film 'Living With Dead Hearts' Premieres - China Digital Times (CDT)

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