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Thursday, April 24, 2008 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: "Welcome to the Axis of Evil" —...
2008-04-24

Up the Yangtze: Documentary Takes on Social Impact of Three Gorges Dam in China

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The Three Gorges Dam along China’s Yangtze River is the world’s largest hydroelectric project and is due to be completed in 2009. Widely touted as a feat of modern engineering, the dam was supposed to stop flooding along the river and provide clean energy to fuel China’s economic boom. But it has also gained notoriety as an environmental and human catastrophe. Up the Yangtze is a critically acclaimed new documentary about the social impact of the Three Gorges Dam. We speak with Chinese Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Chinese authorities evacuated about 200 people living in a village near the Three Gorges Dam because of a landslide last Saturday. The village in central China is reportedly the last one that will be relocated to make way for the rising waters dammed by the $24 billion Three Gorges project.

The Three Gorges Dam along China’s Yangtze River is the world’s largest hydroelectric project and is due to be completed in 2009. Widely touted as a feat of modern engineering, the dam was supposed to stop flooding along the river and provide clear energy to fuel China’s economic boom.

But it has also gained notoriety as an environmental and human catastrophe. In addition to concerns over pollution, the rising waters have also increased the number of landslides on the steep slopes around the reservoir. Thirty-five people were killed in a landslide near the dam late last year. Last July, enormous waves caused by a landslide killed twenty-four farmers and fishermen. Adding to the human cost, nearly 1.5 million people have already been displaced by the dam.

AMY GOODMAN:

Up the Yangtze is a critically acclaimed new documentary about the social impact of the Three Gorges Dam. The film opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday. This is an excerpt.

    YUNG CHANG: This is my grandfather singing about the river. As the water rises, my grandfather’s stories slowly disappear. Everywhere, there are reminders of progress and sacrifice. Signs mark the flood level, where the Yangtze will rise to 175 meters.

AMY GOODMAN:

An excerpt of Up the Yangtze. We’re joined now in our firehouse studio by Yung Chang, the director of the film. Welcome to Democracy Now!

YUNG CHANG:

Thank you. It’s great to be here. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:

Tell us about this journey that you took. Tell us about your grandparents.

YUNG CHANG:

Well, it was a — it’s really an emotional experience to go back to one’s homeland, to be able to spend time in China. And I’m very lucky that I’m able to speak Mandarin and already had a sort of background in the history of the Yangtze River. It’s steeped in mythology. It’s considered the lifeline of China. And to go into that world with that knowledge and then to see a sort of certain slice of reality on, I guess you could say, the frontlines of what was happening because of this flooding made for a very sobering experience for me.

My grandparents — my grandfather is originally from Beijing, and he traveled with me on the Yangtze River in 2002, and that was where I first became inspired to tell this story of people affected by the Three Gorges Dam. It was a — I don’t know. It was a very emotional sort of process to be able to work with subjects who were directly going to be affected by the next flooding phase in 2006 when I shot the film. At the end of the day, it was a very emotional experience.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And the Three Gorges Dam itself — in the lead-in, we talked about some of the astounding numbers involved in this project.

YUNG CHANG:

That’s right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

But this whole — the impact on the people along the river and near the dam itself, your sense of the huge impact on people’s lives?

YUNG CHANG:

Well, I think that — I think megadam projects around the world are certainly a problem. And I think, in effect, I think the long-term effect of megadam projects can be damaging. And we’re even seeing it here at the Three Gorges Dam. And for me to be working with a family, a peasant family who are living in abject poverty, who didn’t receive compensation, who are not relocated, it was — and not only just this family, but many, many other families that I followed during the filming of this project — it was very, very revealing to me that the social damage, the ecological damage far outweighed the benefits of what one may say can be incurred through a megadam project.

AMY GOODMAN:

Explain the two people you follow in this film Up the Yangtze.

YUNG CHANG:

I follow a family whose daughter is sent to work on a luxury cruise ship. And ironically, these cruise ships are called the “farewell cruises,” where Western tourists from around the world travel to the Yangtze River to see the Three Gorges Dam and to wave goodbye to the disappearing scenery. And ironically enough, underneath them, right below decks, are crew workers and employees whose families and lives are being directly affected by that flooding. So I follow a girl, sixteen years of age — her name is Yu Shui — as she leaves to go to work on this cruise ship.

And in contrast, I also follow a young boy, nineteen years of age, from a middle-class sort of background. His uncle is a local official, and it was an extremely different sort of background than Yu Shui. And during the course of the film, we follow a certain transformation that they go through on this luxury cruise ship, which is considered by the manager of the ship a sort of university of life. So, for me, it became very much so a microcosm to explore contemporary China.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And through the process of the filming, was there any reaction or interference by local officials while you were actually filming? And do you have any intention of showing it in China, as well?

YUNG CHANG:

Yeah, the experience of shooting the film was an eye opener for me, in the fact that I think we didn’t really undergo any sort of major problems with the authority. I followed the line of a lot of documentary Chinese filmmakers right now, and my crew were Chinese filmmakers from Beijing. And basically, you shoot under the radar. You shoot without permission. And I think it helped, the fact that I’m Chinese, that I speak Mandarin, that I could kind of melt into the environment, that I was able to shoot unrestricted.

It was interesting that we would arrive in towns and villages, pull out our camera, and people would actually come up to us thinking that we were from the local TV station and tell us about the local corrupt official or tell us about, you know, some problem that they were having with their village. There are programs in China that are sort of exposé programs, but a little — I guess considered sort of trashy in that respect, that they aim for these kind of stories, in some respect.

But the Three Gorges Dam is very interesting, in that you can, and there are people in China that you can openly sort of criticize this issue, because it falls under the environmental category. So it was pretty revealing as I went along and started making this film, the kind of people that allowed me into their lives.

AMY GOODMAN:

So your film may be some of the last footage of the environment here along the Yangtze?

YUNG CHANG:

I would say that we were very lucky to be able to film what we did. It was, I think, a moment — capturing a moment in history.

AMY GOODMAN:

The Yangtze, the third longest river in the world?

YUNG CHANG:

That’s right. That’s right. And in fact, there’s a sort of addendum to what’s been happening with the relocation process. In September, the Chinese government has now openly admitted that there could be a potential catastrophe in the region. And as a result, they may have to relocate an additional two million people.

AMY GOODMAN:

In addition to the two million?

YUNG CHANG:

In addition to the two million, a total of four million people. It’s unfathomable.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are they putting them?

YUNG CHANG:

That’s a good question. I think that for many now, the extra numbers that have to be relocated is sort of a voluntary number because of the landslides and the sort of erosion along the shoreline, that the problem that arises is an option for people to move because of what you’re seeing now.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And the people that were initially relocated, where were they moved to?

YUNG CHANG:

Well, many people were relocated to higher ground. Other people were relocated to entirely different provinces, where they had to learn a new dialect in a different region. People were given jobs in factories, as opposed to working as farmers. It was such a huge — you can imagine the infrastructure to do this. It’s unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN:

Yung Chang, I want to thank you for being with us. His film called Up the Yangtze opens at the IFC Theater in Manhattan on Friday. And you can go to his website</>, as well, which we will link to.

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