INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER ELLEN PERRY
I always knew I wanted to make films. I'm originally from the South and as far as most people were concerned Hollywood was light years away. But at 19, I decided to take the risk and make that 2,500 mile trip. I ended up studying at University of Southern California School of Cinema Television and one month after graduating found myself in the middle of China.
Question: How did you come up with the idea to do a documentary on the Three Gorges Dam?
It was actually executive producer, Stephen Moffitt, who came up with the idea. He had seen an article in the New York Times and ask me to read it. I found it incredibly fascinating. But I never in a million years thought I would actually take on this project. The scale of this kind of documentary is huge. And I had no experience. But I couldn't stop thinking about the article and soon found myself in the library at USC checking out books on China and photocopying other articles on the subject.
Question: What was it that made this topic, the world's largest dam, so compelling?
It's an intriguing story because everything involved is pushed to the extreme. The dam is going to have an incredible impact on the people who, for generations, have made their lives along the Yangtze's banks. Even today it's difficult for me to wrap my brain around relocating 1.5 million people. How the Chinese government will ever pull this off successfully is anyone's guess. Secondly, there's the archeological history that has been virtually unexplored in the Three Gorges region that will be submerged forever when the dam is completed. Then there's the environmental impact. Many believe this dam will lead to further extinction of species in the Yangzte. In particular a freshwater dolphin called the Baiji.
Finally there's the compelling political story behind this dam. People don't realize that a lot of people within China are opposed to this project. They include individuals who have been involved with previous dam building efforts who want to go on building dams - they just don't want to build this dam. And this opinion reverberates around the world where there have been ongoing protests for years. It's a project evocative of the old way of doing things in China. It's large scale bureaucracy, huge construction gangs, cadres with a lot of power, controlling a lot of money. There's corruption, deceit, and it's China. How exciting!
Question: How did you prepare for the project, especially given the potential opposition from the Chinese government?
I really had no idea what I was getting into. But one thing I did know, I would never get approval from the Chinese government to make this film. If I had gone through the official government channels the permits required for filming would have been prohibitively expensive. Once I arrived, I would have been assigned to an official government guide and quickly ushered through the Three Gorges region. I would have been told who to speak with, where I could shoot - totally controlled. Naturally, I would have never gotten the true story. So instead I went in on a tourist visa, with a digital camera. It was great. The Mini-DV camera had just been introduced to the public. It couldn't have come a better time. In fact, I remember after the test shoot I said to myself, "Game over! This is going to change the face of documentary filmmaking." And it has. I got broadcast quality images and sound from a camera that looked like a hi-8 movie camera.
Question: How where you received in China as a female Caucasian filmmaker?
For my intents and purposes I was received well because no one took me seriously. In fact, I recall several occasions when individuals would make rather snide remarks. I remember comments like, "I've never seen a camera woman before" and "I bet she doesn't even have it in focus." All the while I'm getting this awesome footage, which made the comments that much more amusing. And because I posed little if any threat, and because I had a very unobtrusive camera, people were open and accommodating, which I hear is very unusual in China. It's difficult to trust a filmmaker or journalist from your own country much less from across the globe. And China historically has been very guarded from the outside world. But the fact is the people of China who are being affected by this dam have a voice. And my intention was to capture that voice.
Question: Did you have any close calls with the government?
Yes, several. But there was one incident in particular that even today gives me goose bumps. We had one week of shooting left. For the most part, the film was done. The one thing we still needed was footage of the animals that were going to be affected by the dam. So we headed to a nature reserve called Shennongjia, via a ten-hour bus ride. At dusk, the bus stopped at a little town just outside the reserve. We went to the only hotel there and were told by the receptionist that no foreigners were allowed. As I looked out the blue tinted windows from the lobby, I realized that the only vehicles traveling the roads were brown, military jeeps. Moments later three military officials walked in and demanded, in English, to see not only our passport but a travel permit required for restricted areas. We were detained and kept under house arrest until the following morning when we were put on the first bus out of the area.
I'm convinced the only reason we got out of it at all was because we were two young women who appeared to have made a wrong turn. And while I was not trying to spy on Chinese military covert operations, I was illegally filming a documentary that the government would clearly object to. After all, the dam is former premier Li Peng's pet project. If they had checked my bags and seen all that footage and camera gear - best case scenario, I would have lost my film - worst case, my family would still be searching for clues as to my whereabouts. I shudder at the thought, but luckily fate was on my side.
Question: How do you think the Chinese government is going to respond to this documentary?
Probably not well. But, for the record, it was never my intent to attack the Chinese government. I tried to make an honest film that explored both sides of the issue. It's a complex situation with no easy answers. China already has tremendous electrical demands, and these demands are growing. China suffers from enormous air pollution from coal-burning plants. And the Yangtze is a river that floods often, endangering the lives of millions and causing billions of dollars in economic loss. The film explores these issues and is sympathetic to the government's dilemma. But is building the largest dam in the world the answer? Has the government explored all the alternatives? Is it worth usurping the lives of 1.5 million people, wiping out endangered species, forever submerging clues to China's ancient past, and permanently altering one of the mightiest rivers in the world? That's for the audience to decide. The government has already made their decision.
Question: What is one of your fondest memories from your travels in China?
I loved the time I spent in Dachang. Dachang is an ancient Ming village that will be submerged. It's a 7-hour journey from the Yangtze on a tributary called the Danning. When we arrived we were greeted by inquisitive children, some of whom had never seen a white woman. They were simply adorable. After school they would follow me around as I was filming, and occasionally one would muster up the courage to touch my arm, then quickly hide behind a friend, giggling the whole time. In fact these children are in the film. It was so important that I had that experience because I'd been so consumed with the technical details - getting from point A to point B, getting the shot, and remaining inconspicuous - that I found myself at times losing sight of why I was there. And those children reminded me. To think those same children today have been moved or are in the process of leaving that beautiful village is so sad. Dachang was a magical place. I'll never forget it.
Question: What do you hope to achieve by having made this documentary?
I hope to shed some light on a very complex topic. I hope to educate the audience on a subject they are likely to know little about. I think that is the goal of any documentary filmmaker. But it's a tough job. Many people sit down in front of a TV to escape, and I'm one of them. I must find a way to educate while making it compelling enough so the audience won't turn the channel. Of course, in an ideal world it would be great to move someone to action.
A couple months ago an eight-year-old boy, one of the first people to preview the show, was so moved that he wrote a letter to the government begging them to stop the dam. You can't imagine how touched I was to hear that. At that moment I knew that all the hard work had paid off.
Question: What are your plans for the future?
The project I'm currently working on is a fiction film. It's about a modern-day Blanche Dubois who has had a bumpy ride through life eased only by the "kindness of strangers." Except this time around it's not a Street Car Named Desire but a Street Car Gone Haywire.