What are the conditions for making documentaries in China? One of this year’s most acclaimed Chinese docs is “Before the Flood” by Yan Yu and Li Yifan. DOX met the latter of the two at Docs Kingdom in Portugal.
Li Yifan and Yan Yu, both of whom have been working in other areas of film and TV, made their first documentary together entitled “Before the Flood”, which has travelled to several festival around the world, including Berlin, Cinéma du réel, Los Angeles Film Fest, Munich Doc Fest and Yamagata. The film follows the inhabitants of Fengjie, just before their town was to be flooded as a result of the building of the Three Georges Dam (see review DOX#59).
Filming “Before the Flood”
“Before the Flood”has quite a narrative structure. Did you have a planned script beforehand or did things develop as you came to shoot?”
We basically had the idea to shoot there in Fengjie, and we were very clear that we didn’t want to tell a story about one single person-otherwise the issue would get lost. We were going to shoot life in the village, not one exact story about one person. We hadn’t planned every detail, we just went there and began to shoot and then the things came up, as we shot we drew up the plans and changed the structure.
“The film is quite critical of the way the authorities dealt with the relocations. Were there any problems shooting or showing the film afterwards?”
No, there were no problems with the local authorities, because first of all they did not know for sure who we were or what we were making because we were together with some journalists from national TV stations. The second point is that the authorities think, ‘I am doing my job. I am not being immoral. I am not guilty of anything, I am just doing my job. I don’t feel bad about that.’ We had established this principle that the people we shoot have to feel comfortable with us and the situation, so some issues we left out because people did not want to show it to the camera.
Chinese Doc Makers
“How do European and Chinese documentaries differ?”
There is a big difference in the reality that Europeans face and Chinese face. The things people are shooting are very different, the situation they face is very different. It is not a technical difference. For sure the Chinese are lacking behind, because they just began and they have no big financial support, but this they can learn and develop. The difference is people, culture, the issues, concerns.
Since the opening of China to the world, there is this crazy capitalism, the opening of communism. People are being more selfish and it is all about money. You have to reach your own goals. There are new rich people, and the poor people continue to be poor, or even poorer, and for a developing country the difference is huge. For example in Europe it is more calm, quiet, people just let go. In China you have to keep fighting to survive.
“And which issues are the filmmakers dealing with? Are they making films about that situation?”
We can distinguish three different groups of documentary filmmakers in China which co-exist:
The first are those who show their point of view of the society now in China.
The second are those who make films because of passion for cinema, like my partner Yan Yu. He is the kind of filmmaker who wants to make films. He loves cinema and is not so concerned about society, about the problems.
The third group are like my students in their early 20s who are concerned about showing themselves, how they think, their point of view. It is not that they really know much about cinema or are concerned with social problems. They don’t even know about historical happenings, turning points in history. It is just a way they can show the way they think, their feelings.
I belong to the first category. Documentary film is a way I can show the people my point of view of society and the problems of society, mainly due to my education. I don’t want to do big, technically advanced productions or go to Hollywood. I want to keep expressing my point of view through the documentary.
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