The rising of the river:
I had a very good Chinese cinematographer from Beijing and we worked together to shoot this film. I wanted to make something cinematic, and we decided we would try to forgo any sense of a documentary and aim to tell a very strong narrative story. That meant that we had to be very careful in timing scenes so that we could get the right sort of imagery or composition. Of course much of it turns out to be unexpected. You go with the kind of spontaneity that happens with documentary. But given that China is a very photogenic country where you can turn the camera on almost anywhere and get a magnificent image, we wanted to take advantage of that.
The flooding sequence happened in increments over the span of one and a half months in the fall. The sequence is a real-time time lapse, shot over a period of about six weeks — every week we shot a two-minute sequence in a fixed camera position. The result is a long dissolve in real time of the flooding waters. And it gives you a bigger perspective, allows you to step back after being so close with the subjects and see that transformation happen from a distance
"Cindy" Yu Shui's mother breaks down:
I think this scene is one of the most moving and intimate scenes in the film. It's rare to see a Chinese family open up so emotionally.
The scene came about after a tense day of shooting. The lunch meal with the family had just preceded this moment. Yu Shui was preparing to leave for the cruise ship and she was upset. She didn't want to leave.
The crew was me recording sound, my cinematographer, Wang Shi Qing, and my assistant, Li Li. I had spent a lot of time with the family without a camera in order to build a level of trust. Beyond being a filmmaker, I was their friend. Yu Shui would call me her big brother.
The weather was extremely hot, approaching 100 degrees. usually, the family rests in the afternoon and this is when I would spend the most time around the house. Also, construction workers would take a long break in the afternoon so it was the best time to capture sound. Usually, there is the constant jackhammering and other sounds of construction related to building of the dike. But at that moment, it was extremely quiet. I think you can hear the chickens clucking in the background. Luck is a key factor in the documentary process and sometimes all the elements seem to fall in place. At this particular moment, you could feel the tension of Yu Shui's impending departure. As a statement to her wishes, Yu Shui began studying from her textbook. Her parents sat in the shade of the house.
I learned a lot about directing in making Up the Yangtze. I believe that you have to be sensitive to the given moment and have a lot of patience. My experience at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York, where I learned the Meisner technique, helped to teach me to be open to the emotional context of the participants. It is very important to listen. Many of the intimate scenes in my film were achieved by asking simple questions.
For this scene, I asked Yu Shui if she knew that her home would be flooded forever. I had been saving this question for a long time, waiting for the right time to ask it. It just felt right. There was a lot of unexpressed emotion churning through Yu Shui. She didn't know how to answer my question so she asked her mother: "Ma, what are we going to do when our home is gone?" I think there was the realization that their subsistence lifestyle would change forever, that they would not have an income. When Yu Shui asked this question, a wave of deep emotion poured out of her mother. It was a very special moment and I think being there to witness this was inadvertently therapeutic for the Yu family. They would never have a conversation like this without being provoked to express and think about their future. As peasant farmers, the Yus are accustomed to living day to day. I think that a film camera can sometimes act like mirror into the subject's soul. There is a level of comfort and a willingness to express. In moments like these, the film crew disappears and the subject confronts herself and her family as if no one is around.
As a filmmaker, you thrive on being able to capture these sort of moments. They teach us something. We share the pain and complexity of human existence and human emotions.