The River at the Centre of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time

The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time (Revised)
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So, Yung, if you'd like to start that would be great. Yung Chang: Sure, no problem. The film I made is called Up the Yangtze , and it was shot in the year 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. And I spent the summer of and the summer of shooting there.

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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 It kind of explores the inequities between pleasure and discipline in the two different parts of the world. 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? 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. 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 , 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 , 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.

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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.

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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. Chien: And David, can you speak about your experience? Did you have something similar? 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 he said, "All right, let's go to the factory. 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. 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. Chang: Right. 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. 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? 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.

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 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 , but I was filming the baiji in, I guess, -- 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.

The River at the Center of the World: A Journey Up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time

And so it's a real emotional, emotional experience. In a different way, but one that I think is really important. 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?

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 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. 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.

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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 minute film. 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 , , 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. 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. 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. 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.

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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?

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 and even sort of in this golden era of documentary that we're experiencing, which I think really peaked around , , , 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.

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, 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.

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.

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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? 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 years of industrialization and wreaking havoc on their own environment.

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AMAZING 3-Gorges CRUISE on the YANGTZE river in CHINA😱🇨🇳