When it comes to filmmaking, “sometimes you just have to take risks and believe you can make a difference.” Such was the advice from Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and JMSC faculty member Ruby Yang before a packed audience at Hong Kong University on April 25.
Yang was delivering her inaugural talk, titled “Becoming American, Becoming Chinese: A Personal Journey Through San Francisco, Beijing and Hong Kong,” as HKU’s new Hung Leung Hau Ling Distinguished Fellow in Humanities. She showed clips of her documentaries, short subjects and public service announcements, and gave a tour d’horizon of her career.
Yang left Hong Kong for San Francisco in 1997 to study art. She left her comfort zone and moved to Beijing in late 2004 to produce films about such sensitive subjects as HIV/AIDS and environmental degradation.
She is best known for the trilogy of short documentary films she produced there: The Blood of Yingzhou District, about a group of orphans whose parents died from HIV/AIDS-tainted blood, which won an Oscar in 2007; The Warriors of Qiugang, which tells the story of villagers fighting against a toxic chemical plant, and received an Oscar nomination for best documentary short in 2011; and her film about the lives of gay men in China, Tongzhi in Love, which was short-listed in the same category in 2008.
“I’ve now gone full circle, coming back to Hong Kong, and now (to) the JMSC,” she said.
In addition to their artistic merit, Yang’s works show the impact documentary films can have on the lives of their subjects. “After Warriors of Qiugang was nominated, the local government in Benghu in Anhui province announced a RMB30 million campaign to clean up the toxic sites shown in the film,” Yang said. “Today, they’re all cleaned up.”
While being a filmmaker in China is rewarding, the challenges can be daunting, she said. When dealing with government officials, “you need locals to help you ‘decode’ the real meaning of what they’re saying,” said Yang. “It’s also getting more difficult to film in China as the government tightens up. This is why I’m mentoring the next generation of young Chinese filmmakers.”
Her advice to aspiring filmmakers was to be objective, and don’t shoot too much. “You have to be prepared to do a lot of post-production work. Also, think out your theme before you ask questions. Outlines and storyboards are important.” She also recommended that filmmakers spend a lot of time with their subjects, particularly if they want people to open up.
Despite the obstacles and financial risks, Yang was optimistic about the future of documentary filmmaking, particularly in the Asian region. “Being a filmmaker is tough, but right now there are lots of subjects in Asia,” she said. “I see difficulties and challenges, but also lots of opportunity.”