Time and tide
When Yan Yu arrived at the picturesque riverside town of Gongtan four years ago, making another documentary was not high on his agenda. He was hoping to have a relaxing holiday because he had just spent years working on Before the Flood, an award-winning documentary about how Fengjie, a 2,000-year-old village near Chongqing, was vacated and then submerged underwater for the sake of the Three Gorges Dam project.
As he walked down Gongtan's narrow streets, however, a sense of deja vu hit him: disgruntled villagers were standing beneath self-made banners protesting against government plans to forcibly relocate them. The reason? Their town was to be submerged underwater for a hydroelectric dam being built upstream.
True to form, Yan was soon up and running with his camera, filming processions, mass meetings and heated debates on street corners.
'I wasn't sure whether I'd come up with a fully fledged film,' says Yan. 'I'm more concerned about letting more people know about what's happening there. It's quite a far-flung place: it's on one of the smaller tributaries of the Yangtze River. My feeling has always been that people know what's happening in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing, but citizens in small towns such as Gongtan find it hard for their voices to be heard.'
The result of Yan's labour is the hour-long documentary Before the Flood II - Gongtan, which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival last month and will be screened here again next week as part of the Chinese Documentary Festival.
Like his previous film, Before the Flood II charts a small rural community's predicament as government officials ride roughshod over its concerns in the name of progress; both Fengjie and Gongtan ended up underwater, their residents dispossessed and dislocated. But the similarity between the two films ends there. Yan's latest film sees the oppressed rise up and confront their fate through direct action and modern communications technology.
'In the first film, most people [in Fengjie] were seen enduring their pain,' he says. 'They could voice different opinions but they were more or less suppressed.
'In the second film, however, more people chose to express their desire to fight for their rights; they are more than willing to speak out. They failed too, but the public seemed able to voice their views, and I believe it shows a level of progress - it would be unimaginable that something like this would have happened 30 years ago when the Deng Xiaoping-initiated] Open Door policy began.'
What intrigued Yan is the way Gongtan's residents took to digital video and the internet for their campaign, a development captured in Before the Flood II. Throughout the documentary, Yan found himself filming modestly dressed villagers recording their own activities. It was a reversal of convention. It used to be that the only people filming such gatherings would be plain-clothes policemen, documenting events and possibly trying to identify the people stirring discontent.
'Some villagers sent their videos to [media] outlets such as BBC,' he says, adding that some officials chose not to clamp down on their activities.
'It seems [officials] are more open to negotiations today; a mechanism for dialogue exists now. It shows how the situation on the mainland is moving forward. If things had been at a standstill, I don't think there would have been any point making a second film.'
There's still a long way to go before such openness can take hold on a grass-roots level, Yan says, as the government's response to popular concerns remains 'unsatisfactory'.
His optimism is tempered by the way he was forced to stop filming in Gongtan well before events played out to their conclusion, which explains why the film stopped short of showing the final confrontation between villagers and the apparatchiks, and doesn't contain footage of the town being demolished and its residents moving away. The chaos is only suggested at the end of the film, when Yan shows the empty shells of the same buildings he visits at the start.
'When I was making the film, there was interference from the local authorities,' he says. 'To protect my subjects, I decided I should retire from the scene. Yes, the film could have been more comprehensive about the situation there, but I decided not to stick it out to the very end; I believe the mechanism which facilitates negotiations between the two parties there should be based on trust and my presence was not conducive to the dialogue. I think it's wrong for me to ignore other people's feelings merely because I want to finish my film.'
While he admires the citizen journalists' efforts in uploading their films to the internet to attract wider attention and discussion, Yan has never considered releasing his films online to evade the mainland's strict censorship.
'It's technically possible, yes,' he says. 'But if I am to release my films like this, it will affect the way I do my work ... I travelled all around the rural areas on the mainland to look for stories and subjects, and I can only do so [freely] if I do not go to the extreme. I don't make fictional features - they are not about my personal expression. So I believe my work should be conveyed through systemised, reasonable avenues.
'I spent quite some time considering whether I should talk to you in an interview,' he says. 'My job requires me to maintain a low profile - and that is the best way I can protect myself. I make documentaries because I love the people and I think it's a valuable emotion. I don't want to [manipulate] these feelings to make a documentary that will make me famous. My hope is always that the people featured in the films can look back at them, say, 20 years from now and see how Chinese people reacted to the country's economic and social reforms at a given time.'
Yan's social conscience stems from his four-year spell in the mid-1990s as a television journalist, a job he left in 1998 to pursue a career as an independent director of commercials, television dramas and finally documentaries. It was not until 2004, however, that he made his big-screen directorial debut with Before the Flood, which he co-helmed with Li Yifan.
'I am less concerned about the actual building of hydroelectric dams than how such projects foster psychological changes in the masses,' says the 38-year-old.
'I want my films to be a record of how people have changed in the past three decades. This is what I think documentaries are about - so when you look at them again five or 10 years later, you can reflect on those images and consider how they changed, and how the system changed.'
He also hopes to capture the changing role of documentary filmmakers. 'As creators, we know that our work is seen by international audiences. But I think I couldn't provide my subjects with enough help, as I am not yet in a position to do that. I have seen western documentaries at film festivals, when even the most individualistic film would eventually generate some returns for its subjects.
'For the time being, my work is more like a piece of historic information; I hope they can eventually help to change things.'
It is something Yan hopes to achieve in a third Before the Flood, which will revolve around how people in cities respond to vast changes in their circumstances.
'Villages, towns, metropolitan cities - these are the three entities which make up the layers of the mainland's social fabric,' he says. 'By looking at the changes at these three different levels, you get to understand the changes sweeping across China today.'
Before the Flood II - Gongtan will screen on May 19 and 25, at 7.30pm, at the Hong Kong Arts Centre