Meet the Academy Award Nominees: Ruby Yang--'The Blood of Yingzhou District'
Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing--and in some cases, re-introducing--our community to the filmmakers whose work has been nominated for an Academy Award for either Best Documentary Feature or Best Documentary Short Subject. As we did in conjunction with the DocuWeek Theatrical Documentary Showcase that we presented last summer, we have asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far, and the impact of an Academy Award nomination.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Ruby Yang, director of The Blood of Yingzhou District, which is nominated in the Short Subject category.
Synopsis: The Blood of Yingzhou District documents a year in the life of children in the remote villages of Anhui Province, China, who have lost their parents to AIDS. Traditional obligations to family and village collide with terror of the disease.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Ruby Yang: A.K.A. Don Bonus (P.O.V. ; 1996), a gritty video diary that chronicles the daily life of an 18-year-old Cambodian immigrant living in San Francisco, was the first documentary that I edited. I saw the promise of video diaries in editing Don Bonus. And in my first feature documentary, Citizen Hong Kong (PBS; 2001), video camcorders were given to five young people to document their triumphs and tribulations during Hong Kong's first post-colonial year. With their footage, I also wove in my personal portrait of a rapidly evolving Hong Kong, my childhood home.
IDA: What inspired you to make The Blood of Yingzhou District?
RY: The Blood of Yingzhou District is part of a broader AIDS awareness campaign (including PSAs and documentaries) produced by the China AIDS Media Project, of which Thomas Lennon is the producer and I am the director.
In 2001, I met Thomas Lennon, the series producer and lead writer on Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, a Bill Moyers series, while I was working as the series editor. At the end of the project, we talked about what we wanted to do next. I said I wanted to do a film about AIDS in China. Tom said, "It seems to me that if you do this work, we have to try to get it on air in China; that's the audience for whom watching is a matter of life and death." And that's how the China AIDS Media Project was born, of which this film is a part.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
RY: In Chinese culture, it's difficult to talk openly about one's personal life. I've encountered this during the making of my other documentaries and Blood is even harder because of the subject matter and the stigma associated with AIDS. With the help of the local charity founder Zhang Ying, I was able to gain the trust of the children and their extended families so that they could open up to tell their stories.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
RY: The experience of going to Anhui province, meeting the children, seeing for myself their desolate living conditions, their helplessness, and hearing their stories--about selling blood years before, and the stigma against them--all affected me greatly and motivated me even more to work on the AIDS awareness campaigns.
The stories of the children were heartbreakingly sad; we had to find that balance where you don't overwhelm the audience or drive them away, yet at the same time keep the power of the narrative. Also, maintaining emotional distance was difficult. For months, I wouldn't give up certain stories even though I kind of knew they slowed the film down. Tom would fly in and we'd have screaming matches over cutting the film down.
IDA: As you've screened The Blood of Yingzhou District--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
RY: There weren't any reactions from the audience that I didn't expect. But 90 percent of the audience wanted to know about the fate of the children in the film. Gao Jun, the boy who is centrally featured, is now on medication and his health has improved significantly. He has also been moved to another home of an elderly couple who have lost their two sons and one daughter-in-law to AIDS, and the couple seems to be taking good very care of him. He will start kindergarten in the fall. But nobody can be sure what the future will be for Gao Jun, or for Nan Nan, who is the other central character also living with HIV/AIDS. All we know is that they are no longer facing stigma from the villagers, and Nan Nan's relatives are no longer afraid to be with her.
IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination? Although it's only been four weeks since the announcement, how do you anticipate this nomination will impact your career as a filmmaker?
RY: I was in Beijing when a friend of mine phoned in the news from Hong Kong. I was very pleased, but our Chinese staff was overjoyed; they were literally jumping up and down, hugging each other for half an hour. For the staff, it was such a thrill to have one of our documentaries being recognized by the Academy, and the nomination represents the ultimate artistic validation of the work.
For the past two years, Tom Lennon and I have been working to get documentaries and public service messages about AIDS on the air in China, trying to reach Chinese audiences. That's the heart of our work, and this film, as much as we love it, is just one part of what we've been doing. But it's amazing to see the media impact of the Oscars, what a big deal they are in China--in some ways, a much bigger deal than in the USA, because nominations of films made in China and Hong Kong are rare. So, will the nomination help energize support for us? Will it help keep us going? We hope so, and we're cautiously optimistic because the Chinese government is increasingly open, undefensive and active on AIDS issues, and the press attitude toward our film and the nomination has been, on the whole, very positive. So...fingers crossed...
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
RY: I admire the bravery and daring works of the very few independent documentary filmmakers in China--among them, Wang Bing, whose 10-hour epic documentary, West of the Tracks, was filmed over a two-year period in the industrial district of northeastern China. The film explores the aspirations and frustrations of Chinese workers and their families as China rushes to modernity.
No matter how difficult the circumstances these filmmakers face and the limited resources they have, they are trying to make powerful commentary about the society in China.