Meet the IDA Documentary Award Nominees: Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon--'The Warriors of Qiugang'
Editor's Note: Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon's The Warriors of Qiugang has been nominated in the Best Short category at this year's IDA Documentary Awards, to be held at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles on Friday, December 2. Below is an interview we conducted with Yang and Lennon last February in conjunction with her film having been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
In the days leading up to DocuDay LA and DocuDays NY, 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 last summer's DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, 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 are Ruby Yang, director, and Thomas Lennon, producer, of The Warriors of Qiugang, which is nominated in the Best Documentary Short category.
Synopsis: Zhang Gongli is a farmer who grew up in the village of Qiugang, in Anhui Province; his house and fields lie near the banks of the Huai River. In 2004, private chemical companies took over an old state-owned enterprise that had long produced pesticides and dyes in Qiugang. As production ramped up, black waters disgorged from the plants and flooded the fields of Qiugang. Fish died, crops failed and villagers grew alarmed by the large numbers of their own succumbing to cancer.
When his own fields could no longer be farmed, Zhang filed a lawsuit against the factory that adjoins his land. He lost. This marked the beginning of a stubborn and often dangerous campaign that spanned five years. The Warriors of Qiugang follows Zhang and his allies in the village as they draw up a petition to bring to Beijing, recruit support from the local media, reach out for help from a local NGO, and in time, make contact with environmental activists from across China. From clandestine trips to the nation's capitol to private negotiating sessions with factory representatives, the film reveals a rare portrait of grassroots activism in contemporary China--of villagers wrestling with, and transformed by, China's headlong rush into modernity.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Ruby Yang: In 1979, I was at San Francisco Art Institute studying painting and enrolled in a class on avant-garde films. I was mesmerized by the beauty and simplicity of the films by Bruce Conner, James Broughton and filmmakers from that generation. One year later, I started to make my first short film.
Thomas Lennon: I thought I wanted to be what back then was called an experimental filmmaker. I would go to hear Stan Brakhage speak, would watch films like The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes. And then, quite late--I was out of school and trying to earn a living in New York--I realized that content really mattered to me, information mattered to me.
IDA: What inspired you to make The Warriors of Qiugang?
RY: A supporter told me about an NGO she was excited about, Green Anhui, in Anhui Province--not too far, actually, from where we'd done our AIDS film, The Blood of Yingzhou District. I'd been wanting to do a film about the environment in China. Tom was reluctant, actually. He was engrossed in trying to jump-start a public health campaign in China about tobacco, about smoking--similar to what we had done with Yao Ming and AIDS on Chinese TV. That was his obsession and he lost over a year of his life to that. Meanwhile, the field producer Guan Xin and I started gathering footage in Anhui. It was a while before I realized there was a film there.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
TL: In a way, China is the most exciting place in the world to make films in because everything changes at such a staggering pace. (When I'd come back to Beijing to work with Ruby after a month in New York, there'd be a skyscraper that hadn't been there before.) So there are stories everywhere you turn. But it's a hard place to work, too, because trust is in short supply. Permissions are always hard. It fell to Ruby and to Guan Xin to win over the villagers, who were already taking considerable risk by waging this campaign--much less having a camera on them. Guan did a great job; he became a friend, a fixture in the village. But access was and remained a huge obstacle.
RY: The film was filmed over almost four years. [It was] Hard to sustain access, hard to sustain energy, hard to keep up with a changing story, and also brutally expensive.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
RY: The turning point was a scene when all the villagers gathered to sign a petition. It was nighttime, summer. The room was filled with smoke and sweat. On the one hand, the scene was crackling with contemporary excitement. But it was also a scene that went deep into Chinese history and tradition--the petition to the Emperor in Beijing. After that scene, I was committed; there was no turning back.
IDA: As you've screened The Warriors of Qiugang--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?
TL: We actually haven't seen the finished film with audiences that much yet. It was a difficult film to finish; we were in the edit room for months in New York and showed it to friends in steps along the way. We made huge changes based on the reactions that we got--many of which surprised us. We would shape a scene to convey one thing and we'd be floored at how, with the cultural and language barriers, it would be read as conveying something completely different. So that was a very important set of test screenings that changed the film radically.
IDA: Where were you when you first heard about your Academy Award nomination?
TL: By 2010, I was a scarred veteran of this process. This is my third nomination, and the second in the short-documentary category, which is structured to inflict maximum psychological damage. Here's the thing: In late October, you get word that your film has made the short list of eight films. That means you have a real shot at getting a nomination--and you know it. And then you wait. And wait. By January, you're not in good shape. The morning of, I knew the Academy was going to post the nominations. I thought, I'm not going to sit here, like Jesse Eisenberg in the last scene of The Social Network, clicking and re-clicking my computer waiting for the results. So I walked the 40 blocks up to my office. It was cold, a lot of snow on the ground. I held my cell phone in my hand. At one point I looked at it and said, Hmm, 9:00 a.m. No one has called me. That probably means it's not going to happen. Then a friend called, screaming.
RY: Tom and I have done three shorts in China. The first won an Oscar--such a surreal experience, just a dream for a filmmaker. The second film, Tongzhi in Love, is a special film, one we really love, and it was short-listed and then...didn't make it. Tom is right: That was psychologically tough, because with a short film, even more than with a feature, the Academy is the platform. There aren't many others. This year I was trying to steel myself. The morning of the Academy nominations is nighttime where I live, Beijing. I told my husband, "Let's go out to dinner. Let's think about something else." While I was at the restaurant a Hong Kong friend called me. And a few minutes later, Tom Skyped my cell from New York.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
TL: We were once asked that question by Errol Morris, except he asked, What filmmakers...And Ruby answered, Stan Brakhage. And I was speechless. When she and I started working together almost 10 years ago, we went out to lunch when we barely knew each other, and we talked about Stan Brakhage. In a funny way, that great avant-garde artist might not mind being called a documentary filmmaker. So many great inspirations, but for now let's just honor him.
The Warriors of Qiugang will be screening Saturday, February 26, at 9:00 a.m. as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and Sunday, February 27, at 3:00 p.m. at DocuDays NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.