One-on-One Q&A: Sue Williams, "Young & Restless in China"
Young & Restless in China, a new documentary from director Sue Williams and her company Ambrica Productions, opens April 11 for a week-long stint at New York’s Cinema Village as well as at Laemmle Theatres - Grande 4 in Los Angeles. The film “follows the lives of nine young people over four years as they struggle to find their way in a country changing faster than any in history.” Below is The Film Panel Notetaker's One-on-One Q&A with Sue, who discusses her experiences shooting this and four other previous documentaries in China.
TFPN: What prompted you to make Young & Restless in China? Why did you choose this topic?
Sue: I have made four other films in China. (China: A Century of Revolution – A trilogy of three features: China in Revolution, The Mao Years & Born Under the Red Flag and also China in the Red.) The latter is about how the end of communism was being lived by ordinary people and it came out in 2003. Everyone then was talking about China being the next superpower. I was interested to know what China was going to be like in 10 years time when it’s a major player on the world stage. What are the people like who are going to be running it and who will be important in business and in the arts? I thought it would be interesting to get to know young people in their 20s and 30s and see what motivates them, what interests them, what drives them and what their lives are like. That was really the reason that I started the film.
TFPN: How did you go about getting funding to film in China?
Sue: That’s a long and difficult process. Some of the money comes from grants. Some of it comes from support from PBS stations. We have a number of private individuals who have foundations or have given money as tax-deductible donations. It’s very hard to raise money for independent films.
TFPN: What was it like filming in China? Did you face any regulations or restrictions?
Sue: Usually when you’re there and you want to film anywhere official, such as a government official or at a large business, you need to have permission. You can get permission through different organizations. We happened to work with CCTV (China Central Television) which is the national television network. They have a department that works with film crews from abroad. So we had someone with us. That’s good because it’s the only way you can get into some places. Then of course sometimes it’s a drag, because they want you to show the positive side of China. We were very fortunate on this one – my other films were much more controversial – for example trying to film one of our characters who ended up in jail! This film I was really more interested in making these portraits of young people. We had pretty good access, even though there are a lot of distressing stories in the film. Those include: the daughter whose mother is trafficked and sold; the migrant worker who works 11 hours a day, 7 days a week; the environmental lawyer who is fighting for individual rights so that the government will acknowledge that individuals have rights in a society as well. Because these issues were very integral to the characters, we managed to spin them pretty positively to our minders. Some of them were quite helpful and sympathetic. I think people have assumptions about China. It’s not politically free by any means, but it is a huge and vibrant country with lots of people going on with their lives, having very little to do with the government. We were kind of moving in and exploring that area.
TFPN: Where else will Young & Restless in China be showing and what are some other projects you are currently working on?
Sue: In addition to this week’s openings in New York and LA, it will also play in Pasadena. And then it will be on Frontline before the Olympics. We’re working on a film about Johnny Cash, something completely different. We have a couple of investigative pieces that we’re also developing with Frontline.
TFPN: What else should people know about your films?
Sue: The reason I keep making these films is because China is such a difficult place to understand. It’s often treated very one dimensionally in the media. It’s all human rights or Tibet or how China makes all the goods we have in this country. All those things are true but it’s not the only story in China. I think that we face many common problems with the collapsing environment and health pandemics. I see that the bird virus has just started to mutate; it’s started to have human-to-human transmissions, which is hugely serious. If we’re going to work together on these issues that are trans-global, we have to start trying to understand each other. I hope people come away and say, “Gosh, I can relate to them. We listen to the same music. We all like sports. We care about our kids. We care about our parents. We all need healthcare, somewhere to live.” As well as having big differences, you see we share quite a few things. After going to China more than twenty times now, I know we do have a lot in common too.