Life on China’s Margins with Oscar-Winning Hong Kong Documentarian Ruby Yang

Ruby Yang lets me touch her Oscar. Under normal circumstances the gold-plated statuette that, for better or for worse, symbolises the epitome of filmmaking craft isn’t even in her office in the University of Hong Kong, where she serves as head of the Hong Kong Documentary Initiative (HKDI) in the school’s journalism department. But she’s moving house and the Oscar has found itself on top of a box, on top of a nondescript filing cabinet, in front of framed posters for some of her films: the new Ritoma and the Oscar-winning The Blood of Yingzhou District.

It’s much heavier than it looks. “[Winning it] was very special – almost like you’re in a dream,” says Yang.

She is sitting at her desk, recalling the night in 2007 when she stood on the stage of the Kodak Theatre and accepted an Academy Award for Outstanding Documentary Short Subject. True to her word, she’s not really interested in showing off. She’d be forgiven even if she were; it’s an Oscar, after all. “For one night you’re Cinderella,” she says. “As a documentary filmmaker this is a highlight. For a lot of celebrities it’s Sunday but for me it’s the first and last time on a red carpet.” Her acceptance speech was short; she didn’t get played off the stage.

Tradition and modernity clash in the small Tibetan town of Ritoma in the latest by Ruby Yang – Courtesy Chang Ai Media Project Ltd

More than anything, Yang is pleased the critical acclaim may have brought attention to the urgent subjects of her documentaries, or put bums in the seats for her new film, Ritoma. Documentary filmmaking, Yang believes, is uniquely positioned to tell stories and inspire change in this age of 15-second soundbites and 280-character tweets. Yang revels in long form documentary for its ability to truly dig into a subject and present a more three-dimensional portrait of a topic.

Making a documentary needs time – time for research, time for editing and time for crafting a compelling narrative. But the end result is worth it. “It’s a more thorough type of journalism, but it can also be a piece of self-expression. The form is evolving,” says Yang. “I think the power is in the images. One picture, one sound and you tell the story. You look at someone in a situation and you get it, even without words. If the story is well told, and the film is well shot, it makes a huge difference in terms of getting your message across. I think people are taking more interest than ever in documentaries.”

A Yingzhou village deal with the deaths of its sons and daughters in Ruby Yang’s Oscar-winning documentary short – Courtesy Chang Ai Media Project Ltd

A Hong Kong native, Yang lived in San Francisco for many years, where she also went to university at the San Francisco Art Institute, falling under the artistic sway of avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren, and the poetical images of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. It was the mid-1980s, and San Francisco was at the heart of a new Asian-American media movement. Yang developed a taste for exploring issues of identity, place, and speaking for the voiceless. “I [became] very interested in advocacy work, that’s how I got my training,” she explains. “I’m interested in telling stories for people who don’t have a voice, who face discrimination.”

Yang started her career as an editor on films such as Lee Lew Lee’s Black Panther doc All Power to the People! and Joan Chen’s feature Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl. “Coming from Hong Kong, where being Chinese isn’t a problem, to see the tail end of the Chinese Exclusion Act [of 1882] and these lonely, old men in the park was an eye-opener. It was like, ‘Wow!’ I was never so aware of my own identity.”

Advocacy eventually took her to China, where her reputation for documentary filmmaking was cemented. Yang relocated to Beijing in 2004 and co-founded the Chang Ai Media Project with fellow filmmaker Thomas F. Lennon in order to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in China. Chang Ai produced a series of public service announcements — including the landmark spot featuring NBA superstars Magic Johnson and Yao Ming — as well as Yingzhou, which focused on a tainted blood-for-cash scandal, government negligence, and the children orphaned as a result.

Basketball gains traction and engages with all residents of the Tibetan Plateau in Ritoma by Ruby Yang – Courtesy Chang Ai Media Project Ltd

While producing Becoming American: The Chinese Experience for American public broadcaster PBS in 2003, Yang interviewed the trailblazing AIDS scientist David Ho, which put her in contact with Zhang Ying, who started an organisation for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS – and who caught flack from the local authorities after the film made headlines. Yang’s subsequent China-focused docs were similarly thorny. Tongzhi in Love was about China’s LGBT community and the pressure on gay men to produce heirs, while The Warriors of Qiugang (another Oscar nominee) chronicled an Anhui village’s fight with a chemical company to clean up the environment it polluted. Both films touched on the lack of accountability and a tradition of local activism that drew Yang to mainland China.

“With the tainted blood issue, poverty played a large part in the 1980s,” she says. “Blood wasn’t regulated and because the villagers were so poor they sold it. For environmental issues there was a profit factor involved and a lot of corruption. [China] developed so fast, and they sacrificed a lot. In a remote village a whole stream can be polluted without anyone seeing it. It’s gotten better recently but the villagers really paid a high price.”

The Norlha workshop’s men’s basketball team in Ritoma by Ruby Yang – Courtesy Chang Ai Media Project Ltd

All three films remain relevant, and Yang considers herself fortunate to have found a window of opportunity for each one. Official censorship remains as restrictive as ever, so the films are most commonly shown at underground screenings and at universities. Warriors remains sensitive because of its focus on citizen participation; Tongzhi’s subjects prefer the film not be seen in China.

Yang returned to Hong Kong in 2013, when she took up her position at HKU, and she promptly produced My Voice, My Life, about a group of underprivileged Hong Kong students making a musical. Around the same time, she was commissioned to make a film about sustainability in Tibetan Plateau. While initially tracking the work of Tibetan-owned textile manufacturer Norlha in the town of Ritoma, Yang discovered there was a local basketball court and a team led by an American coach named Bill Johnson. They became the subject of Ritoma.

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Nomad, poet and basketball player Jampa Dhundup in Ritoma by Ruby Yang – Courtesy Chang Ai Media Project Ltd

More than simply an underdog sports movie, the film examines the balance between a nomadic past and the future the community is wrestling with. “Tibet is going through a transition,” she says. “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but it’s inevitable. But they’ve been able to retain their culture, which is so important to them, and so strong, and even though they embrace commercialism, Buddhism represents their core values. Commercialism is not mainstream culture. It’s encroaching, but slowly, and this village has maintained its integrity.”

If there are any stars in Ritoma, they could be poet and point guard Jampa Dhundup, whose verse can be heard throughout the film, and 10-year-old Lhamo, who lives with a degenerative muscular disorder and the stigma that goes with it. But Lhamo’s situation is better than it would have been in the past, and her English skills have blossomed with her modest education. “That’s the good part of modernity,” notes Yang.

The film itself is refreshing for jettisoning the romanticism and lyrical imagery that often defines films about Tibet. Yang avoids exotification and fetishisation, instead presenting a small town struggling to find its place in the modern world. Though Ritoma has no political agenda, its fate in China is up in the air. Video-on-demand provider Iqiyi expressed interest, but Yang has been advised to temper expectations considering the way her name raises red flags – a legacy of her past controversial work. “They agreed to look at it,” says Yang. “I was surprised they said yes, but ‘yes’ doesn’t mean anything in China.” Thanks to her Oscar reputation, though, screening the film in China is no longer crucial to its success.

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Norlha would ultimaely be defeated in a small tournament by a team of monks in Ritoma by Ruby Yang – Courtesy Chang Ai Media Project Ltd

If all goes Yang’s way, her next film will be something of a companion piece to her 1999 post-handover snapshot, Citizen Hong Kong, a doc on the history and cultural position of kung fu in the city. That will partly fulfil a filmmaking fantasy. “I’ve always wanted to make an action film,” she cracks. “If I can’t do a feature I’ll do a documentary.”

As an element intricately woven in to Hong Kong society and identity, Yang is keen to examine the why and how – how martial arts gang, regional and school rivalries imported from mainland China informed the city’s evolution, and how that in turn informs Hong Kong’s constantly besieged identity. Bruce Lee is an icon for a reason.

“We have a role model! We’re not ‘Chinamen’ anymore,” describes Yang of Lee’s impact on Western culture and the perception of Asians, a subject that is intensely current right now. “My generation is always wondering, where do we go? Our parents are refugees from China, and they have a refugee mentality – unsure of tomorrow. So where do you go? Once you’re [overseas] you never really fit into the mainstream so you want to go home. But when you come home you’re no longer part of the community.” This uncertainty, this identity that is always in flux – “it’s in the Hong Kong blood,” says Yang.

Ritoma screens as part of MOViE MOViE’s Life is Art programme on September 16. Click here for more details.

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