Zijian Mu was on the seventh floor of his college dormitory in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China, when the earth shook. Struggling to comprehend what was happening, Mu and his Sichuan University classmates instinctively darted from their rooms, bolting down the stairs to get to the ground floor.
But the earth kept shaking.
“It took me a half day to realize that my hometown was most severely hit and destroyed,” said Mu, referring to the May 12, 2008, earthquake that leveled Beichuan, a city 104 miles north of Chengdu, and killed nearly 90,000 Chinese. “That night, I lost thousands. I lost my grandpa and cousins and relatives.”
The Sichuan earthquake – one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in China’s modern history – became the topic of a short documentary that Mu, 26, shot in 2012 as a graduate student in journalism at New York University. His film, “One Child,” was one of eight up for an Oscar nomination this year, but did not make the final list of nominees.
"It's unfortunate that it didn't get nominated," Mu told NBC News in a telephone interview from Phoenix, Arizona, where he lives. "If it did get nominated, it would have brought more public attention to the topic and to the community. So now it looks like I'll have to keep working on this."
Mu was the only Asian-American director in the running to become a short-documentary Oscar nominee, said Natalie Kojen, a spokeswoman for the Academy.
Through the stories of three families from Beichuan that lost children in the earthquake, Mu’s 40-minute documentary examines the deaths of over 5,000 sons and daughters in the context of China’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979 as a way to control the country’s burgeoning population.
The policy has had a debilitating effect on these families, Mu said. When parents in China grow older, he explained, they often look to their only child to help meet financial burdens, since government pensions alone are often not enough to make ends meet.
Following the earthquake, China’s government gave permission for families who lost a child to have another. Many, however, were too old. Mu added that Beijing did not do enough to financially compensate these families.
“If you lose your child,” he said, “you lose your future.”
Mu, who received a student Academy Award this year for his film, said that so far he has screened “One Child” in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, as well as in China at prestigious Tsinghua University. Although news about “One Child” was censored in Sichuan, other provinces in China did report on it, Mu said.
Mu said he hopes to eventually show his film in even more venues in China, to open up dialogue about the one-child policy. Even without the Oscar nomination, Mu hopes to foster understanding of what these families endured through his work.
“This whole thing is larger than anything I’ve ever experienced before,” he said.