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Discussion: Turning the Lens on China

Documentary filmmakers Yung Chang, Ellen Perry (Great Wall Across the Yangtze), and David Redmon (Mardi Gras: Made in China) and independent film producer Karin Chien talk about the challenges and rewards of filming in the ever-changing landscape of contemporary China.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Karin Chien: I'm very excited to be talking with all of you, and I thank PBS and POV for inviting me to join this roundtable.

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The first thing, I think it might help for the listeners to hear a little bit about each filmmaker, the films that you've been involved with that have shot in China or that have involved issues or stories from China. So I'm going to ask each of you to please briefly talk about your film, when it was shot and what brought you to China to shoot a documentary. So, Yung, if you'd like to start that would be great.

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Yung Chang: Sure, no problem. The film I made is called Up the Yangtze, and it was shot in the year 2006. I moved to Chongqing and I lived there for about a year. The film is about — on the bigger scale it's about modernization in China, using the microcosm of a luxury cruise ship on the Yangtze River, dubbed the Farewell cruise. And on that boat, I follow the upstairs-downstairs world of crew workers below decks who arrive from along the river to work on the ship and the tourists above decks.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Ellen Perry: My film is called Great Wall Across the Yangtze, and I started production on that in 1996. And I spent the summer of 1996 and the summer of 1997 shooting there. And my film explores the environmental, sociological and archaeological impacts of the Three Gorges Dam. And it's a balanced perspective: The first half of the film, we go into the reasons why the Chinese government wants to build it, and in the last half we explore the problems associated with it. And that premiered on PBS in 2000.

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

David Redmon: My film is called Mardi Gras: Made in China and I began shooting the film in 2002 and ended in 2004 in Fujian, the Fujian Provence, in Fuzhou. And it follows the path of the commodity chain of a Mardi Gras bead from New Orleans on Bourbon Street to the factory in China. It kind of explores the inequities between pleasure and discipline in the two different parts of the world.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: Wonderful. It sounds like between the three of you, there's a wide range of experience and also time periods of shooting in China, as well as locations. Now, let's talk about the experience of actually filming in China. You know, how did the documentary filmmaking process differ for all three of you and did any of those differences influence your storytelling?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Well, I think that my experience being a Chinese Canadian may be quite different than the other filmmakers who worked on films in China. I think that I was in a position where I was able to certainly melt into the environment, being able to speak Mandarin, and sort of disappear into that world so that I wasn't looked at as an outsider. And using that put me in the unique position to be able to be able to explore different perspectives, one of them being through the Western eyes, and the other being trying to be as sensitive as possible to the Chinese experience of those who were being affected by the Three Gorges Dam. So I think it was — it did influence me, and it also influenced me because, I guess, because I'm Chinese Canadian. I felt that I was often sort of between two worlds, able to flip perspectives very smoothly without any major issues. But that also created this sort of conflict that I was dealing with in trying to tell the story of the Yangtze River, of the complications and issues that arise through modernization and certainly progress and the social sort of consequences of rapid modernizations. And so I think that I had this, I had a unique experience. I'm not sure how Ellen and David felt about their process.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: My experience certainly was very different from Yung's because I'm not Chinese, and I do not speak Mandarin. I did, however, go with a childhood friend of mine who is Chinese American born Chinese. And so he was very helpful in the first journey, and in the second journey I went with an environmentalist from Berkeley and an archaeologist from New York, both who spoke Mandarin. But along the Yangtze River, and I'm sure that Yung has had this experience as well when filming, there's so many different dialects — so you think you've got a good grasp of it and then you go seven hours off on a tributary and it's just completely different. So there definitely was that struggle.

But when I went to China in 1996, the first-generation digital video camera had just been released to the market. And I was still in film school. I studied film in Los Angeles, and I was looking at Beta packages to take and I just knew there was no way that I was going to get into the country with a large betacam. And I had decided before leaving that I was going to go in on a tourist visa because if I had notified the government, they would have escorted me through the Three Gorges region, told me who I should speak with, and I just felt like I was not going to get the real story.

So you know, I had several things going for me and several things going against me. The fact that I'm obviously not from that area certainly was against me, but the fact that I was able to sneak in this camera, which looked very consumer, not "pro-sumer," and the fact that I am a woman, which I know sounds sort of strange, but I don't think people really took me very seriously. And that was to my benefit, for certain. Even though I was there in 1996, you know, Tiananmen Square was still fresh in the memory of many, many people and this was I think by far the most controversial subject matter since then, in terms of the national level.

So you know, I had just an amazing experience, and a very difficult experience, but the one thing I was so happy with was that I was able to, for the most part, travel around freely and was able to spend a lot of time in different villages. And it did take some time, but people eventually did open up to me, which you see in the film. And it's incredible. I've seen other documentaries that were sanctioned by the government on this particular topic and you can just tell, it's — the testimonies you're getting are completely viewed by the government and it just — I was just really, really pleased with the journey despite how difficult it was.

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: So you shot under the radar?


Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: Completely. It was total guerrilla.


Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: It's quite intimate that way You do get a lot of quite revealing interviews along the way, and I found that very illuminating.


Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: And David, can you speak about your experience? Did you have something similar?


Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: Well, I bought a camera and I bought a plane ticket, and I called the factory owner after about a few months of research and then I asked him if I could come and visit him, and he said yes, and so I flew with just — like I said, a camera. And when I got there, he was kind of disappointed and said, "Where's the, where's your crew? Where's your American film company?" And I just said, well, it's me. And he said, "All right, let's go to the factory." So we went to the factory, and I pretty much stayed there the entire time. So my idea was to just stay there, even though I don't speak the language, and get to know people through whatever means possible, through gestures or passing around the camera and when they have time asking them if they would like to shoot.

And then, the only time I left was the time I got in trouble and I went to a small village to show, to document how the workers spend their money and what they buy. And when I did that, someone approached me and basically said, "You have to leave. You don't have a visa to be here." I had a tourist visa and so I left, but they let me take my footage with me, and then I returned six months later with another tourist visa and just showed up to the factory. And the owner was a little nervous but he let me in. And so I pretty much just stayed there the whole time and didn't leave. When I say the whole time, it was very little time; it was two months. I wanted to stay much longer, but I didn't have enough money.

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Right. Well, you know, for me, I naÏvely in the initial research development process, naÏvely approached it as if I would get official permission. And it wasn't until my Chinese crew — and I worked very closely with a Chinese cinematographer and sound recordist — and they advised me, because they had experience, were experienced, are experienced documentary filmmakers from the mainland, to not in fact shoot with permission and to shoot under the radar as many documentary filmmakers do in the mainland. And so I think we're not so far off from the Chinese position in documentary filmmaking in the mainland. So that for me was quite an illuminating process, that everybody can do that. And it's sort of the method for making critical documentaries.

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: Yung, I wanted to ask you a question. I read in an interview with you one time — and I was hoping you could comment on it — you said that some of the films you've seen made in China by people who are not from China have sort of a Western bias. Can you kind of elaborate on that? Do you mind?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Yeah, I was looking at it from the perspective of the Three Gorges Dam films that I had seen, in particular, Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal, and I was looking at it from different points of view. I felt that — and not in a negative way — I thought that they were very powerful films, especially Manufactured Landscapes. But in some sense, it looks at the film from a sort of distant perspective. I felt that it was looking at the issue of modernization through a position that was somewhat in the terrain of a doomsday sort of film. And I felt that I wanted to try something. or try to make something that was as intimate as possible through the Chinese eyes, that sort of human experience, and to be able to spend enough time with that subject so that we would get a more nuanced, not so black- and- white perspective on the issue of progress.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: And I actually thought you were really effective that way. And just in terms of my own experience and my perspective, I know that the leaders of China did see Great Wall Across the Yangtze and responded — I wouldn't say necessarily favorably, but they weren't really upset about it either. Because like you, I really thought it was important to have a balanced perspective, and when we were in the middle of our edit, the big flood of 1998 hit, and that was certainly telling to many people who opposed the dam that clearly flooding is a major, major issue. And if you look at the cost of the '98 flood, you know the numbers hovered very close to the numbers of what it's going to cost to build the dam. And you know, those things are very important.

I think with your film certainly the intimacy with the surrounding region and the testimony and the journeys that you have with your characters are really intimate and lovely. With Great Wall Across the Yangtze, I really wanted to cover aspects that were going to be affected by the dam, and one of the things I have to say that I am a bit proud of is being able to document the baiji, which is now extinct. In the 10 years that — well, the film was released in 2000, but I was filming the baiji in, I guess, 1997 — it's gone, and there were 30 — they believe there were about 30 left in the river. And to me, all of a sudden, the film becomes a bit of an archive. And you know, being able to film Zhang Fei temple and Fengdu — and these areas are now submerged — it's just, it's really, it's just so saddening to me to know that I was there and I experienced that and the viewers who watched the film experienced that too. And so it's a real emotional, emotional experience. In a different way, but one that I think is really important.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: This might be a great entryway to hearing more about how the three of you chose your respective subjects. What compelled you to choose the topics that you focused on and also the subjects or the people in particular that you filmed?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Well, to preface I would say that all of our films are sort of documents of a moment in history and we were very lucky in terms of timing to be able to make these films when we did. I think so much has changed since 1996 in terms of reception to environmental issues in the country and certainly also in the communities as well. People are much more aware of the environmental and social issues and are much more willing to confront those problems more actively. Not collectively, I would say, but just more out of certain desperation I think. And that was an experience that I had when filming along the Yangtze River, people — many protests and demonstrations happening just because being pushed to that sort of extreme of needing to voice that concern about compensation and such. And corruption.

Anyway, aside from that, I think that — I was really inspired to tell the story of modernization using the backdrop of the Yangtze River. And my film doesn't necessarily touch upon the engineering aspect of the Three Gorges Dam or something of that nature, but I felt that there was so much in that landscape, in that epic landscape of the Three Gorges region, that it sort of had universal themes emanating through it. So I began the research process and walked into this cruise ship, which I felt also had many, sort of, multilayers for discussing change in China. Let me start with that and then pass it on and then maybe I'll continue.

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: I had several characters. One was the plastic bead, obviously, and originally I wanted to go to Iraq because that's where the petroleum is mined to make plastic, and then it's shipped to China where the workers then assemble the bead into a plastic Mardi Gras bead, and it goes to New Orleans. So along this journey, that's when I met the people in the film. And since I don't speak Mandarin or Fujinese, when I got there the first character, Ga Hong Mei, was the most accessible only because she came up to me and started talking and basically took the camera and started filming her friends. So from that point on, I'd say we developed a close bond. And from then on, the rest of the material was shot in New Orleans. But that was just maybe 15 minutes of the 75-minute film.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: And my character, the main character is the river and the secondary character is the dam. And in terms of the voices that you hear from outside of it are the people who live in the cities and the people who live in the villages. We talked with hydrologists who were completely supportive of the dam. We spoke with Dai Qing, who was one of the China's leading political dissidents. We spoke with experts on sedimentology, experts in archaeology — Yuweh Chow, who was running the excavation process in the Three Gorges region, did an interview with the film. And I actually had the good fortune, just to support Yung's comment, of working very closely with individuals within China and the environmental community and the archaeological community who were also involved in the film and television world and who were deeply, deeply passionate about the subject matter and were incredibly helpful to the project despite the fact that it could potentially endanger their careers and potentially their lives.

I mean, at the time that I was there, there was no protest, outward protest. And in the case of speaking with sociologist Zhang Xiang, he went there and provided footage for the film of some local protest, and some of those protesters disappeared. I mean, and this is in 1996, 1997, so things have changed a lot in the last decade. And even just looking at the banks of Chongqing in Yung's film, I mean, I don't even recognize it. [LAUGHS] I was like, "Is that Shanghai?" I mean, it's really incredible. And I'm so happy for that, truly, truly am happy. But I do feel that in this decade I mean, China has just changed tremendously. And for the better, for sure.

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: So now going back to Up the Yangtze, I focus on about seven different subjects. About three or four of them were directly involved with working on the cruise ship and the other families that I followed that don't all show up in the film were onshore subjects dealing with relocation issues like compensation and such. But I ended up in the editing process, I did focus on the story of the Yus, the peasant family living on the banks of Fengdu, and their child Yu Shui, who goes off to work on the cruise ship. And then in contrast I worked with Jerry — Chen Bo Yu, who is middle-class, a little emperor from a tributary town, and it's called Kai Xian. And I felt that those two would — and their experiences — would sort of touch upon our comments on the experience of growing and evolving as the water floods in China.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: It's interesting that the starting point for most of the chosen topics of your films are some large issues, from modernization or globalization or the environment. And the films also become very specific in a way about the subjects that you choose to focus on more. You know, can the three of you talk about if you hope to convey something specific about the Chinese experience through these subjects or through these topics or, you know, is the film really meant to be more universal, and you know, something that a Western audience can easily extrapolate to our experiences or sort of larger, global perspectives?

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: Well, for me whenever I take on any sort of global topic I want it to be just that, global. And in my documentary experience, it's really, really important to reach as wide of an audience as possible, which — in Great Wall Across the Yangtze we talked to certainly a lot of people in China, but we also talked to people in Canada and the United States and in Europe. And you know, unfortunately with — and it's getting much better, it's certainly — by the time the film came out in 2000 and even sort of in this golden era of documentary that we're experiencing, which I think really peaked around 2005, 2006, 2007, you know, we're finding that people are a lot more tolerant with the subtitles [LAUGHS], and they're willing to — they're interested in global issues, much more so. And I think that's with the advent of certainly the Internet, and you know, I think it's really important that people listen to these individual voices throughout the world and certainly that came — I mean, China really revealed its intent and its just awesomeness, which I already knew just sort of being there a decade ago and researching the last century with the Three Gorges Dam project, but just with the Olympics in Beijing. [LAUGHS] I mean, if you didn't want to know China, I think you probably want to know China now, I mean certainly globally. I mean, it was just such an awesome experience. And I'm actually really, really excited for the country. Anyone who has studied China and is a bit of a Sinophile has always said that they are the sleeping giant and have been waiting 5,000 years to emerge as a global economic super power. And now it seems that it's their time again. And so I'm particularly excited for that.

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: I don't know about those — it just seems kind of generalizing. To put on an Olympics is the equivalent of a spectacle, but insofar as the workers from below, that's pretty much who — I was wondering about who are the people who make the spectacle possible? Who are the people who are transforming China into the global economy? And for many times, it might be the politicians and the people who enact the policies, but most of the time it's the workers themselves who make all of these products possible.

And so that's one reason that I decided to make the Mardi Gras film. And albeit I would never, ever want to try to get as many workers as possible because you get way too many voices but the film intends to focus on the workers themselves, and you get to hear their point of view, and actually, are they benefiting? And if so, how? And why?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Yeah, I think there is global extension through our films and especially that — in working with my Chinese film crew, they're very, very — you know, it was a constant debate about the value of progress. And you know, often it would come up, the discussion would come up that in the West, you know, the West has spent 200 years of industrialization and wreaking havoc on their own environment. And then I think for a lot of Chinese now the pressure of modernization is on their shoulders to sort of step up and show or to positively effect some sort of change, rather than have that opposite effect of industrialization sort of melt into their world. And yet they're dealing with a lot of the pressures. And so it was very interesting.

And also in sharing the film with audiences in the West, I found that often audiences in the West tend to forget that our jeans, our clothing, our whatever it may be, our products are being made by a migrant worker in southern China or something like that. And there's a certain hypocrisy in that. So I think that was one aspect of revealing the issue going on at the core of who is responsible for change in China. And it does happen that the — on a basic level for those who are trying to improve their lives, quite simply, and I think that that sort of question, the question of who is benefiting was sort of key and inspiring in making the film.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: I totally agree with you and certainly one of the topics that was explored in Great Wall Across the Yangtze was, from the Chinese perspective, who supported the dam.... "Here's the western world saying here you are, looking at the splinter in our eye, and yet you don't even notice the log in your own. You've already dammed up all your rivers. You've enjoyed prosperity 400 hundred years, and here we are trying to attain the same status." You know, the problem is that population of — China has such a huge population, so how do you do that? How do you work with a collective and still modernize in a way that is safe for the environment and you know, Philip Williams who was head of International Rivers Network at the time, I'm not sure if he's still there, he made this really insightful comment that if you — particularly with dam building, if you look around the world and you see the number of dams that have been named after dictators and presidents — he mentioned Stalin had dams on the Volga and we have Hoover Dam, and there is this sort of grandiosity that appeals to this megalomaniac instinct that sometimes overrides economic considerations and sound political judgment. And I'm sort of quoting him, I can't remember his exact quote, but that was the essence of it. So really, China really has a difficult journey ahead because of the massive population that they have to deal with and how do you work with a collective? You know, it's incredibly difficult, and with benefits there will be consequences. But historically if things go too far to the right — I mean, China has always managed to bring forth a peasant revolt and I don't think — we just can't dismiss history. History is important.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: Absolutely. I think that the three of you bring up two really interesting issues that I'd like to touch on more, one being that the whole world is looking at China right now, whether it's for the environment or the politics or the Olympics or recent political events. You know, there's a huge amount of interest in China, but perhaps not that much access to a range of information or media about what actually is happening in China today. And Yung and David, especially, when you talk about your films, you talk about it in the sense of wanting to provide a further window onto another part of Chinese society, Chinese people, that hasn't been seen before. And also Ellen, with providing different perspectives or views onto a very important event that's happening within China right now. Could the three of you talk about, you know, is a complete or diverse view of China lacking in Western media today, and was that part of the impetus or did it become part of the impetus for why you were making the documentaries that you did?

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: Wow. I don't know, that's such a big question, I don't know where to begin, but — I hate to sound so naïve, but one reason I went is because I didn't really know much about anyone in China. And so I thought that by making the Mardi Gras film I would go there, but at the same time sort of get at this disconnect between what Yung was talking about earlier, the numerous products that come out of China and where they end up and how they're consumed and how they're disposed of, where they end up afterward. So by following the commodity chain, it rebuilds sort of these invisible links between people who make, people who buy and then people who throw away. And I forgot the second part of your question.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: No, I mean I think that it sounds like your documentary was in a large part motivated by your own natural curiosity about how the process works but also the people in China itself?

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: Oh, and you were talking about the media and the presentation of China through Western media. I don't know who this media is, I don't really know how to process representations of China through television or radio or even the Internet. I just got back from China, in fact, maybe less than a month ago. I was in Shanghai and three hours away, outside of Shanghai, in different factories filming again. And what I experienced in China this time is nothing like what I've seen on TV. So even if we got some kind — we people here in United States — got access of images, or access to images from China and from people in China, I think that it would give an entirely different presentation of China. And I'm not sure how those images would be sanctioned by the state or are they images from people on the ground, but just the division between old Shanghai and new Shanghai was baffling. It was so baffling that in a way I'm kind of motivated to go there and just drop everything and live there and try to understand how parts of Shanghai are becoming erased and developed around the Radisson hotels and the clean, efficient, kind of sterile-looking buildings, compared to the old Shanghai with the old twisting, windy roads, which absolutely has a marketplace. It functions and it buzzes. I'm not trying to romanticize one over the other, but to me it seemed like a clear conflict of interests, after talking to the people who live in old Beijing. They're incredibly worried about where they're going to go and what happens when these buildings come in and move them out. Where are they going to live? How are they going to continue to fish and sell their items on the streets?

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: And Yung, would you feel the same in terms of just wanting to give another perspective or viewpoint on what is happening in China today? Or life in China?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Yeah, definitely. I think that — let's see. I think that all of our films try to avoid the sort of reportage presentation of sound bytes and easy statements about another country, about China. I think that the sort of power and value of documentary filmmaking is that you're presenting not answers but a lot more questions. And I think that's the sort of goal for Up the Yangtze, was to not necessarily have an invested right-wrong position, but to sort of present those different nuances that are very real in our society today. That we can — I think that was something that I was dealing with as a filmmaker, the conflicts of right or wrong, good and bad. And to look at something not so black and white, to offer something a little more complicated. Because China, as I think we all agree, there's quite a complex society. And it's not easy to say that the Three Gorges Dam is a bad project. But I would say that — although that might seem — here's my hypocritical standpoint, but my feeling is that mega-dam projects around the world create more negative social environmental consequences than they do have benefits. But nonetheless, I think that in making this film I wanted to explore those nuances.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: And certainly for me it's all about story. I mean, ultimately as we move on in our careers and subject matters, I think all of us choose a subject matter based on how great the story can be, the potential of the story. And I thought, you know, that this was an amazing story because you're dealing with No. 1, China, which has been sort of closed off from the Western world for a very long time. You're dealing with the largest dam in the world with the largest displaced population in peacetime history, you're dealing with a culture that, along the Yangtze, that dates back to the Stone Age, and you're dealing with animals that have survived for millions of years but can't seem to survive the industrial era of this country, particularly the baiji, the finless porpoise and others. So to me it's awe-inspiring, and you know, was a terrific, terrific challenge. It's all about story. And if it had been set in another country with such extremes it would have been as interesting.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: I think that's a good point. The second issue you guys brought up that I wanted to touch on was just the rapid pace of change that's happening in China and if that's something that is causing these kind of extremes stories, the dichotomies that David's talking about in new Shanghai/old Shanghai or new Beijing/old Beijing. And also just the upstairs/downstairs, the different roles that are happening within the same place that Yung's speaking about as well. Do you feel that because of the incredibly fast pace of change that's happening in China, as this is bringing forth stories, that's really drawing you in here as opposed to what you might find back home or in other parts of the world?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Yeah, I think what we have in China is I guess what you could call a sort of case study in a sense, and that — I'm in Korea right now, I'm in Seoul, and I've been sharing the film with Korean audiences. And many people can relate., I think, to and have expressed a sort of comparison to what happened in Korea about 30 years ago, when much of the country was impoverished and going through sort of the process of modernization and rapid change. And I think what we have and what is unique is that right now it's happening in China and we as filmmakers have the means and technology to be able to document that process.

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: I'm thinking about what Yung said, trying to process the question at the same time still. I mean, again, as an outsider it's really difficult to respond to that question. I like what Yung said earlier about how as filmmakers, or as a filmmaker one of his goals is to bring questions to the audience, instead of always trying to provide answers. And what Ellen said about focusing on story is something that I also agree with. But, again, I can only speak from my limited experiences in China in talking to the people who have lived in the villages that I visited, you know, for their whole lives. So, for example, I just left one village where 10 years ago they said maybe a thousand people lived there, and with the advancements — and that doesn't mean the progress, but the advancements — of modernity and industrialization and the import of different kinds of technologies, they've grown from just maybe a few thousand to about 50,000 in less than 10 years. And with that comes enormous buildings and apartments and vehicles, and so there's this very efficient-looking city. But at the same time, I don't really know if the workers claim to be benefiting from much of that. They seem to be working a lot, but how much of that are they really taking home, and how much of that are they really able to invest in their own futures, as opposed to the future of the economy, the future of China?

And kind of also going on what Yung said earlier, I think there are many Chinas, maybe not just one China. So to speak of China as a whole entity in terms of a nation might be somewhat correct, but in terms of the multiplicity of China, there's so many Chinas that it depends on where you're standing, where you're sitting, who you're talking to and the kind of stories they're telling based on their own experiences as well. And I'm not trying to be a relativist at all, but it's just kind of confusing, so therefore I kind of end up proposing questions of confusion at the end of many of the films I make. Not only Mardi Gras: Made in China, but the others.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: There are different levels of prosperity in China. And that's something that's really exciting to me. There's actually becoming, there is an emerging middle class, which hasn't existed in a very long time. And, you know, I'm in London now, and the individuals filling up the stores at Harrods and Harvey Nichols are not Americans. They are Chinese and Russian. So it's, again, I think it's really — and, again, this is sort of me kind of looking at it outside of China and the impact of China on the global market now — I think is very significant. And I understand we all have different financial echelons around the world, and I know that China definitely has a deeply entrenched, sort of, for lack of a better term, peasant culture that live off of pennies a day. But at least there is an emerging middle class, which hasn't happened in a really long time. So I think that's positive.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: Another one, perhaps, that hasn't been captured on film so much either, so there's a lot more stories to tell there as well. One thing about documentaries, I find, is that the stories continue after the documentaries are finished and are shown to audiences, and one thing I'm always curious about is how has the story continued, how have those lives continued? And I wonder in each of your films if you've returned to visit the people that you filmed, or the places where you shot, and if you have, what maybe some of the changes, if any, have there been since you stopped filming there?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: Well, in the preproduction process one of those key elements is building and gaining the trust of your subjects, and one thing that I sort of made a vow to myself is that I wasn't going to sort of disappear after production, and so I have been back. After completing the film, I went back and showed the film to all of the subjects involved, and have been in touch with some of the key subjects, especially the Yu family. And I've also started a fund or charity for that particular family in helping them in the long term pay for some certain, sort of day-to-day needs and also supporting them financially, especially for the family, for their children to attend school and to go through the education process. And a lot of that came about through Yu Shui's decision to leave the cruise ship and go back to high school.

And so I think for me, and it's not the same for everyone, but certainly for me it was important to go back and be in touch with the family and — I don't know. I guess it being my first film, my first feature, it was important for me to — I don't know. You spend so much time with subjects and really invest and have them share, I guess, their experiences, their life with an international audience. It's important to not lose that connection, and so I hope to be doing that in the future with other films and future subjects. I think it's important.

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: Well, I haven't stayed in touch with anyone in Mardi Gras: Made in China, and not because I haven't tried to, but because the workers just — they live transient lives, and so therefore they move around quite a bit. I've tried to stay in touch with the owner, Roger, but after seeing the film I don't think he wants to stay in touch with me. [LAUGHTER] So it's not by choice. Although I think, you know, he was really, really proud of his factory, and I thought I did a decent job of conveying how proud and happy he was, working from scratch, owning — renting a factory from, you know, building a factory, now owning the factory.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: I'm also curious to know if the three of you feel like there are stories pulling you back to this country, to China, if you see yourself returning here to film in the future?

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: I definitely am not finished with films about China. I think that — personally I think that there's a lot for me to learn about my ancestral culture, and I think there are many stories to tell that have universal sort of outreach. And I will be back. I will definitely go back to China.

Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: As I mentioned earlier, when I filmed there it was definitely very different politically, and a lot has changed. And when this screened in the states, I was told by several eminent professors, one individual, Orville Shell, who's dean of the journalism school at Berkeley and a pretty well-known Sinophile, he said that there's no way that they're ever going to let you into China [LAUGHS] back into China knowing that you've made this film. And so I haven't actually tried. Though I don't think it actually would be a problem at all, because, again, it did screen in front of various government officials, and certainly, you know, the Council on Foreign Relations and Woodrow Wilson Center and places like that. And then the reception was okay, and I do feel like it's a really, really balanced piece.

I am working on several screenplays where there is an element of China involved, and these are fiction films. And the film that I'm putting together now involves — you know, it's a family fiction film that involves the cooperation of the English Premier League, football league, soccer. And we're working with one of the Big Four clubs here, and I know that marketing this film in China is going to be huge—

Up the Yangtze: Yung Chang

Chang: They love soccer.


Up the Yangtze: Ellen Perry

Perry: They do, and there are a billion football fans in Asia alone, and they are not sort of club committed. And with something like this, this film, they may become dedicated to one club. [LAUGHTER] So in terms of the viability of the market, it's tremendous. And, again, we're talking about sort of a different thing. We're not talking about story, we're talking about marketability, and, again, there's this growing concept of the middle class and wanting to spend money on shirts and various paraphernalia of the English Premiere League, which is the No. 1 league on the planet for football. So, you know, [LAUGHS] I think — you know, again, I have a very positive outlook.

Up the Yangtze: David Redmon

Redmon: Well, I think I've already mentioned that my partner, Ashley, and I just returned from China, and we didn't go there because we wanted to explore a story in China. The only reason we went there was because our character brought us there. She's a designer who has all of her clothes manufactured in China, and she'd never seen the factory, so she went out there, sort of on a whim, and we followed her and we stayed in the factory and documented her experiences of meeting the workers and then leaving. So after staying there, I think we might turn the film into a series, and we're probably going to head back sometime in the next few months if we can get the funds to go back and stay in the factory and get to know a few of the workers and the people who own the factory a lot better than just passing glances. And I think that's something that Yung's Up the Yangtze did incredibly, incredibly well, which is not to get passing glances, but to stay embedded and see their world through their eyes, as opposed to through the camera's eyes.

Up the Yangtze: Karin Chien

Chien: That's great to hear. I think that there are so many stories remaining to be told in China, and audiences are, I think, incredibly hungry in the West especially, for different points of view about China.

I look forward to many more works from the three of you. And thank you for a really incredible conversation about documentary filmmaking and China, really a huge topic. But I think we did some justice to it today. Thank you.





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[I wanted to make] a movie about tourists on this Yangtze cruise boat — a kind of 'Gosford Park' idea that shows the social hierarchy, the lives above and below the decks. I realized that the people working on the boat were all from the Yangtze area and that many of their families were affected by the dam.”

— Yung Chang, Filmmaker