Interview – Sue Williams, Director of “Young and Restless in China”

American documentary producer Sue Williams started making films on China in 1986 with a trilogy on modern Chinese history.

For “China in the Red”, she followed 10 individuals over 4 years as they struggled to adapt to the country’s economic reforms.

This year, she has come back with a new film, made for PBS. “Young and Restless in China” is described by PBS as “an intimate look into the lives of nine young Chinese, coming of age in a society that’s changing at breathtaking speed.” For this film, Williams followed her nine young subjects for four years, documenting the changes in their professional and personal lives.

In Hong Kong recently, she spoke to The Works’ Han-yan Yuen.

Han-yan Yuen
You’ve made many films in China? How did your interest in the country come about?

Sue Williams
I have a long family background there. My mother was born and raised in China. So I grew up hearing a lot about China. It was kind of familiar to me when I was growing up. When I was working in TV, I always thought I’d like to go to China one day. And in the mid 80s, I was doing film research for public TV in the States, and I was having a conversation with this guy in New Jersey who has a private collection of film. We were just chatting and I asked him if he had any footage of China. And he took me to the back of his house, and it was just one wall full of 35mm cans of footage of China. The first can of film I opened was a 1912 film made in Hong Kong about the 1911 revolution in China. I didn’t know anything about China then. I kind of felt like I won a lottery, I stumbled across this amazing collection and that became the genesis of the China trilogy.

Han-yan Yuen
How did your first project develop into a trilogy?

Sue Williams
China is just endlessly fascinating. You know, I wanted to understand the people better, the society, everything is so complex and that was in the mid 80-s, when I think things were kind of more opaque in China, and there was more influence of Maoism, and reform and opening is just starting. And I went on to make the second film, “The Mao Years”, because I was sort of the same age as the Red Guard generation and I was very interested in how people that are sort of my age, could have had such different experiences. It was a way to understand people who are my contemporaries. And really, PBS just sort of kept saying” “What happened next? What happened next?” So I just kept coming back.

Han-yan Yuen
Did you take on a conscious role of countering stereotypes?

Sue Williams
In America we hear so much about China, and we understand so little. And so much of what we hear is China as the rising threat, China as this economy that will take over the world. And so I was very interested in talking to young people who would be running China in a few years’ time. Who they are, what they are interested in, what moves them, what excites them. So I think I came up with a very different picture of what young people are like in China than what most Americans would think.

Han-yan Yuen
Where did the theme of “Young and Restless Come from?”

Sue Williams
Before talking specifically about “Young and Restless”, I should say my interest in making films about China for so long has been to let the Chinese people, or the Chinese people I interviewed to talk directly to Americans, to let them tell their stories, without it being framed: why is it important to American politically. But just to hear people’s stories so we can understand each other better. I think in this current economic crisis, if it’s shown us anything, it’s shown us how interconnected we are. And we have to understand each other.

Han-yan Yuen
How different was the reality of these young people from the US perception?

Sue Williams
The little bit that one hears in America about young Chinese people is that they are all very selfish, the singleton generation, the one-child generation. I sort of expect, well I didn’t expect, but a lot of Americans expect to find very egotistical, selfish generation, and I found people who were had much more in common with young people in American and Europe than they would think. They are concerned about figuring out who they are, what they want to do, finding a partner, finding someone they want to be in love with, finding someone they want to have a family life with. They’re concerned about education and health care. They’re starting to take care of their parents. And yet some people are selfish at that age all around the world. That’s when you’re trying to figure out who you are. I find a lot of commonalities pretty surprising for American audience.

Han-yan Yuen
There seems to be a lot of hostility in the US towards China.

Sue Williams
I don’t think America hates China. I think they are very suspicious of the government, just as I suspect a lot of Chinese might be suspicious of the American government for good reasons. Do the American people hate the Chinese people? I don’t think so. But I don’t think they know enough to even begin to be able to begin a dialogue. So we have to work very hard to break those gaps, the chasms in communication. I don’t think Americans want to keep China down, that’s what I hear: Do we want to keep China down. No, but again, there’s a sort of history in America about “Red China”, “Communist China”. And in many ways, America’s really never gotten over that, and in many ways that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

Han-yan Yuen
So communication is all.

Sue Williams
I say that’s my goal: to further communication, but I don’t make propaganda, I don’t set out with a fixed agenda. I think if you let people talk to each other, you find there are lots of things you have in common. I picked the characters in the films because there are certain issues in China. I am really interested in the environment, not just in China, but the environment in general. That’s why I picked Zhang Jing Jing. I’m interested in the Health Care System. In America we don’t even have a Health Care System. And I was curious to know what was happening in China about Health Care. And obviously we hear so much about business and the booming Chinese economy. Or up till recently, the booming Chinese Economy. So I wanted to have some business people, so I did look into specific areas in the characters. But in the end, I just wanted good characters, who were relaxed in front of the camera, who were willing to share the stories.

Han-yan Yuen
How did you focus in on your subjects?

Sue Williams
We started with about 15, but a couple dropped out during the process. We kept in close touch with them over a long period. I loved that because you feel like you can get to know people so much better. This device of returning enables you to get to know people much better.

Han-yan Yuen
The project’s release coincided with an Olympics year for China?

Sue Williams
We felt that there would be a lot of interest in America before the Olympics, and this film … this film was the PBS Olympics offering. They wanted one big programme focused on China before the Olympics …

Han-yan Yuen
You were talking about people being selfish and materialistic, but some of your subjects seem to be moving away from that.

Sue Williams
I feel that the last two months, everything has changed so entirely that I don’t know where anything is headed. Everything’s just imploded so much. But at the end of the film, you really see that certainly the older people in the film are thinking a bit beyond the material. Ben Wu, even though a complete workaholic, he’s thinking he wants to do his solar panel start-up. Doctor Yau is thinking how he can help the healthcare system. I think everyone is questioning why they’re doing what they’re doing. Is the money enough? Is that the meaning of life? I think certainly those who are privileged in the film – by privileged I mean those who have a good education – they start to question that pretty young. For the migrant workers, it’s just a matter of keeping your head above water, putting food on the table, bringing up your kids.

Han-yan Yuen
But there is the rapaciousness too?

Sue Williams
It’s like the poor kid who goes to the candy store and he just wants to fill his mouth. That’s an analogy Lu Dong makes. I think that’s a perfectly valid interpretation. It’s not my interpretation. I did include it in the film. It does seem to me a way to explain a lot of what’s been happening in China with the kind of frenzied full-on economic growth that doesn’t seem to have taken too much into consideration the social problems, and certainly the environmental problems it is creating. I think that’s an analogy that helps Americans understand. You can understand that, and it’s very visual. I’m really looking forward to going to China again and see how different it feels, because I understand people there are feeling the economic slump perhaps as much as we are in the States. That’s all anyone is talking about at the moment. I feel like I don’t know where everything is headed….

Han-yan Yuen
Have you developed close personal relationships with the people in the film after all this time?

Sue Williams
That’s one thing when you spend time with people. I spent a lot of time on-camera, but I spent even more time off camera with these people. In a way, they start to come to me for advice. It’s actually a very interesting and a very tricky balance for me, to maintain that kind of reporter’s distance. I can’t get involved in their lives. I can’t change their lives. Yet when they’re wondering about what to do, a lot of the dilemmas about relationships and having a child are all things I have been through myself. I guess I got to know them quite well, it’s extraordinary that they just forgot about the camera in the end.

Han-yan Yuen
Did they say things they might regret saying?

Sue Williams
It is surprising how much they opened up, but a number of people are coming to the screenings in China. They’ve seen the films, and obviously they’re not embarrassed.

Han-yan Yuen
How about the authorities? Were there any problems shooting what you wanted?

Sue Williams
This film is actually not bad in comparison to earlier ones, because it’s not overtly political. I call it “Young and Restless in China”. Many people here won’t get my reference. But it’s a very obvious reference to an American audience, because there’s a soap opera that’s been running in the States for 40 years, it’s called “The Young and the Restless”. So I was making a conscious reference to this soap opera which has run for decades. And I call it my Chinese soap opera, because it’s really just people’s lives. I’ve had more problems with other films. The only time we really had problems with this is when we would go to villages, more local levels. There I think local officials tend to be a little more cautious, they watch you a little more. Because somehow in Beijing and Shanghai, it’s a little more relaxed, but I can’t complain on this film. We had a couple of things. We didn’t really have major problems. There were a lot more problems with China in the Red.

Han-yan Yuen
Of course, another difficulty with documentaries is getting the funding.

Sue Williams
There are a lot of problems. It’s really difficult to fundraise for documentaries. I don’t know about Hong Kong, but in the States, we were lucky in that PBS is always a big supporter of my work. But we always had to raise a lot of money, and then I found quite a few Chinese Americans who have done well, who are anxious to help Americans understand China, who were very supportive and helpful. But we were literally fund-raising all the way through., We finished editing and we were in post and we were still raising the last 20,000 dollars.

Han-yan Yuen
How did the financing break down?

Sue Williams
PBS gave us about one third to forty per cent. The rest we raised from foundations and private individuals.

Han-yan Yuen
How do you think it will be accepted in China itself?

Sue Williams
I showed “China in the Red” in a few places in China. It was interesting because some people got really angry at me. I was showing it in factories. Some people said: “Why do you have the right to come and make a film like this?” I thought that was an interesting question. But as we had longer conversations, they became very positive and interesting and responsive. I hope I get a good response, but I don’t know …

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