Yung Chang on attaining authenticity

Montreal-based director Yung Chang talks about his upcoming projects, sources of inspiration, and signature cinematic style. Mr. Chang’s feature-length documentary, Up the Yangtze, was among the top-grossing documentaries of 2008.

Q. In Up the Yangtze, you document the lives of individuals deeply affected by the construction of China’s famous Three Gorges Dam. Throughout the film viewers are flies-on-the-walls to extremely personal conversations between family members. How does this almost intrusive access play into your goals as a filmmaker? Why did you choose this particular cinematic style?

A. I am driven primarily by emotional story-telling. Some of the earliest films I watched were from the observational / cinema-verité tradition. I enjoy the craft of cinema-verité because of its adherence to narrative and character construction without resorting to talking-head interviews or voice-over. This process in itself is a challenge because you’re trying to create story through observation. It requires patience and also clear communication and collaboration with your subjects.
Allan King described this sort of cinema best by calling it “actuality drama”. There is a certain artifice happening behind the scenes because, as a director, I am consciously making decisions what to film and how to put different moments together, but the intention is to make the film feel as much like an evolving story in order to allow the viewer to watch the film as if it were a narrative work.
The ultimate goal being: there are no easy answers. These are complex relationships and we are forced to negotiate and contemplate. That is the cinematic documentary. Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight were inspired by this approach but also by Werner Herzog’s approach of finding ecstatic truths.

Q. We’re seeing increasing numbers of filmmaker-activist alliances, where socially-conscious directors work with community groups to achieve particular impact-oriented goals, such as policy changes, alterations in public discourse, and legislative revisions. Do you have any such professional experiences to share? Or, can you elaborate on a few successful examples?

A. Up the Yangtze revolves around flooding of the Yangtze River by the mega Three Gorges Dam. Upon its release internationally, the film was screened with numerous organizations and non-profits like International Rivers and the River Network. Although the film was censored in China, I do believe it had impact with Government re-assessment of the Three Gorges Dam and its relocation policies. Although I’m not sure to what extent. The film has been widely seen through pirated DVDs and online streaming in Mainland China.

Q. What trends have you been witnessing in socially-conscious documentary filmmaking?

A. In terms of approach, filmmakers seem to be pushing the documentary boundary and alleviating the stringent need to adhere to conservative or traditional methods of filmmaking by finding innovative ways to convey emotion and story, in such films as 5 Broken Cameras and Waltz With Bachir.

Q. Would you describe yourself as a filmmaker with a social mission? If so, what motivates you? How do you measure success?

A. I don’t have a social mission. I would describe myself as a filmmaker interested in telling human stories. By default, sometimes these stories fall into social-issue categorization. I do gravitate to stories where the subjects are facing struggle and conflict, the essence of storytelling. When I approach a film, I’m interested in exploring bigger issues through microcosms, such as modernization vs. tradition through a cruise ship in Up the Yangtze, individualism vs. collectivism through boxers in China Heavyweight, biodiversity vs. monoculture through fruit obsessives in The Fruit Hunters.

Q. What social impact did you hope to achieve through Up the Yangtze?

A. My wish was that the film would speak to audiences about the complexities of modernization but more practically speaking, I wanted to show the human stories behind the Three Gorges Dam. By putting a face to millions of displaced individuals, I wanted to show that the Three Gorges Dam project was more than just an engineering feat. There were lives, tradition, and history being washed away.

Q. Which film of yours, would you say, triggered the greatest response among audiences? How so?

A. Hard to say… timing seems to be a big part of it. Up the Yangtze came out just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and I believe there was a hunger from Westerners to learn more about China. Just make the film you feel passionate about. The audiences will come.

Q. Can you share some of your tips for engaging viewers, especially those who know very little about issues addressed on-screen?

A. Keep watching all kinds of movies, especially foreign films… get off the beaten path. Try to find three good things that you liked about the film you watched. Immerse yourself in every aspect of the cinematic experience. It’s not always just about the story. Filmmaking is all-encompassing; it’s sound, music, cinematography, editing, casting…
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