China From the Inside

Power and the People
Women of the Country
Shifting Nature
Freedom and Justice
Interactive Map
China-U.S. Quiz
About the Series
Behind the Scenes
- Photo Slideshow
- Filmmaker Q&A
- Chinese Crew Q&A
For Educators

Statues in an art gallery

Chinese Crew Member Q&A

Zhao Yang, 27, was a member of the China from the Inside crew on location in the People's Republic. Along with the rest of the crew, she travelled the length and breadth of the country to document the challenges faced by China and her people. Yang was born in Anhui and from the age of eight grew up in Beijing. She studied Television Production at the Beijing Broadcast Institute, and went on to study Communication Management at the University of Southern California before returning to China to work in the media. We spoke with Yang about her experiences with our film crew and the unique challenges of her position as go-between for two very different cultures.

What was your role in the production of China from the Inside?

I was Production Coordinator. That mainly entailed making contacts with various people on the ground, taking care of the British crew and generally making sure everything ran smoothly.

As someone who worked between the crew and the Chinese people, what do you think were the main cultural differences that the British crew had to come to terms with?


Zhao Yang was the link between the U.K. crew, the on camera participants and the Chinese minders. She worked side-by-side with the crew making production arrangements in the most remote of locations, carrying equipment, taking production stills and grabbing meals on the run.

Whenever we filmed or interviewed someone -- experts or ordinary people -- the local governments would always allocate at least one official to accompany us wherever we went. Sometimes there were even more officials than crew members. As these officials didn't have any filming experience, they would sometimes walk into the shot and start "directing" the people we were filming, or from time to time jump in to "correct" an answer given by an interviewee. These actions affected the results of the filming. We had to stop and try to talk to the officials, but some were very persistent and we just had to agree to let them stand there on the condition that they would keep silent. Even if they stayed quiet, the fact that they were there sometimes affected the interviews. Although it's not really a cultural difference, this problem existed throughout the filming process, so I think it needs to be mentioned.

Also: banquets! After more or less every interview with a government official, the local government would arrange a banquet to welcome the crew in order to fulfill their responsibilities as hosts. It's a Chinese custom that if "friends come from afar" they should be welcomed with a feast -- it's an expression of Chinese hospitality. However, the crew felt that such huge tables full of food, with lots left over at the end, were a real waste. Plus these events often went on for between one and two hours. Time is precious on location, so banquets started to become a heavy burden on the crew, especially because they often took place at midday when there often wasn't even time for a quick bite, let alone a sit-down feast exchanging niceties with local officials. When we could, we tactfully declined, but when there was really no way of refusing, the crew just had to take part.

What pre-conceived ideas did the interviewees have about the foreign crew? Did these ideas change after they met the crew?

There were three main types of interviewees, and it was different for each.

The experts and academics come into contact with foreign media relatively frequently, and so knew more about them, so there were no significant changes after they were interviewed.

Government officials had had limited contact with foreign media and before being interviewed, they were worried about what the crew's aims were. Some officials really wanted to let the outside world know about China's problems and the measures being taken to tackle them. But because of bad experiences
find out what you know and don't know in a China - U.S. quiz
in the past -- some foreign media selectively editing interviews -- they were worried about whether the crew would report the truth. As for whether their views on the crew changed after the interview, I think they should speak for themselves after seeing the programme. The other section is the ordinary public. These days, a foreigner carrying a briefcase on the streets of Beijing or Shanghai won't turn any heads, but a whole crowd of foreigners with a television camera can't avoid attracting a lot of interest, even more so in remote areas. The people were full of curiosity about the foreign crew. Curiosity probably overwhelmed any other ideas about them. Of course there was a minority who were worried that the foreigners had come to expose the ugly side of China, but after meeting the crew their worries disappeared. They were lovely people.

What surprised you the most?

One of our tapes being confiscated was surprising. But then Jonathan Lewis, the director, still managed to get hold of the material on the tape that he wanted. I didn't find out about this until the programmes were finished, so that's two surprises!

What was the funniest moment you can recall?

Group of 4 posing with a camera near the Great Wall

Zhao Yang with the crew on the Great Wall of China at sunset.

One day we were in the bus on the way to a filming location. We were bored and started talking about the very first day we arrived and went for a massage, and suggested to Jonathan that he should go for a nice relaxing one himself. He said he never goes for massages, and we started to laugh at him and joke about it. Just as I was laughing my head off, Jonathan turned round and looked at me with no expression on his face and said something to me. What he said made me feel really bad about my behavior and I immediately withdrew into the corner and started regretting laughing at him like that. The rest of the crew all went along with Jonathan's performance, and said that I should apologise to him. I said "Sorry, Grandpa" (I was the youngest in the crew and he was the eldest so I called him Grandpa) and as I spoke tears came out. I wasn't feeling sorry for myself; I felt sorry for Jonathan. When the British crew members saw me crying they couldn't hold it in any longer and started laughing. They told me Jonathan was just joking. I asked why he seemed so serious when he was joking and they said they always joked like that, and I would get used to it. That was over a year and a half ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. The rest of the time I could join in with their jokes and we got on really well, but that was the only time I didn't get their senses of humor. When I think about it now I think how silly I was.

What was the most challenging experience?

It was when we were thinking about whether to hand over a tape that they wanted to confiscate. If we hadn't handed it over there would have been no way to carry on filming.

There's a saying in Chinese that "a family's dirty laundry should not be aired in public." This is often applied to China as a whole, to mean that China's problems should not be discussed in front of foreigners. As a Chinese, did you find it difficult working for foreigners who wanted to know about China's problems as well as its achievements?

I never felt that kind of difficulty working with this crew. I believed all the way through that Jonathan would give the audience an objective documentary on China. If you want to get material on China's problems, the easiest way is to avoid the government and do secret filming. But we didn't film secretly. The Chinese government went along with the filming and assisted with it. We had to win over and get permission from all levels of government in order to film problems and interview people on them. This was the toughest option.

Did the experience of working on the documentary change your own view of China? How?

Not really. But I was able to personally experience things that I had heard reports about. For example, I saw some normal countryside life, and seeing photos of the Huai River pollution for the first time was shocking.

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