Filmmaker Ruby Yang Talks Environmental Documentaries, Animation and Illegal Downloads

The Academy Award winning film-maker, Ruby Yang, showed a special screening of her latest documentary, The Warriors of Qiugang, at HKU on March 30.

Ruby Yang talking to JMSC

The documentary follows the story of villagers from Quigang village, Anhui Province fighting to close down a factory that is polluting their air, land and water.

The film spans five years in which the villagers battle to rid their community of the company responsible for the pollution.

The film, which is both powerful and inspiring, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject 2010. It was directed by Ruby Yang and produced by Thomas Lennon, who together won an Oscar in 2006 for their documentary, The Blood of Yingzhou District.

JMSC Visiting Associate Professor and documentary filmmaker, Nancy Tong, introduced Ruby Yang to a packed auditorium. She said Yang was born and raised in Hong Kong, moved to San Francisco, where she made a name for herself as a film-maker, and then upped sticks to go to Beijing in 2004, in order to make documentaries about China with a social conscience.

“This film is very important and has a huge impact on environmental issues in China,” said Tong.

After the screening, Yang answered a wide range of questions from the floor, including one from the JMSC’s Director of Broadcasting Programme, Jim Laurie. Laurie questioned Yang’s use of animation in the film.

“Because we were talking about an era in the 1970s, I could have used archive footage, but I wanted to use animation of a 1970s woodcraft style,” said Yang. “And for the protest scenes, I used animation because I didn’t want to zero in on any individuals starting fights.”

When asked how many people can actually see this film in China, Yang responded that environmental groups had picked up on the video and are using it as a tool for activism. Interestingly, she also said that illegal downloads of the film – something most filmmakers disapprove of – have really helped get the message across in China.

Yang added that the Oscar nomination had put pressure on the factory to clean up its act by highlighting the problem.

Doreen Weisenhaus, an Associate Professor at the JMSC and Director of the Media Law Project, asked what themes link Yang’s documentaries. Yang, whose subjects have also included children and AIDS and homosexuality in China, replied that she likes to study modern China and how it deals with that modernity.

She revealed that she has not yet decided on the subject of her next film, but knows it will be about “someone with a social conscience” and about “building a civil society in China”.

“It’s a great time to be making documentaries right now in China,” Yang said. “China’s changing so quickly and there are so many subjects to cover.”

[Click on the video below to watch a trailer for The Warriors of Qiugang.]