/ 15 August 2008

Of dams and democracies

I am sceptical about the notion of “big-screen documentaries”; they seldom have enough high-quality image potential to look really good on a big screen. I, for one, am as tired of vastly blown-up and pixellated video footage as I am of ordinary fiction features with a big-screen presence that demonstrates only that they are out of focus.

But if there’s one documentary that has potential to work on a big screen, it’s Up the Yangtze. I can’t promise, though, that when it shows at the TriContinental Film Festival, as it will, that it will necessarily look as good as it could. I saw it on DVD, not a big screen, and the festival is probably using DVD projection, which often doesn’t make for a crystal-clear image.

Up the Yangtze is certainly filled with gorgeous vistas that deserve to be seen in all their glory. Filmmaker Yung Chang, of Chinese descent but living in Canada, gives us wonderful footage of the huge waterway that the Yangtze has been to China for millennia — and the enormous dam that now sits athwart it. The river, the cliffs, the mist; these are images familiar from ancient paintings and now brought to shimmering life. But that is only a backdrop: the primary focus is on lives deeply affected by the creation of the dam.

The Three Gorges project is not so much a Five-Year Plan as a Great Leap Forward that has taken about 90 years to make the jump from concept to reality. Wikipedia informs us that it was first mooted by the pre-Communist government of Sun Yat-sen in 1919; in the film we are shown footage of Mao Zedong famously (and apparently fraudulently — he was 73) swimming across the Yangtze in 1966 and insisting the long-planned great dam would go ahead.

Later we see an old man looking upon the rising waters and saying repeatedly that this is a sign of how important and prosperous a nation China now is. Alongside him is a local farmer who will see his lifelong home disappear beneath the slowly creeping flood — after he and his wife have had to drag their few belongings up a ramp on a handcart, heading for a very uncertain future.

The farmer is at the centre of Up the Yangzte. It is his family’s reaction to the building of the dam — and the inevitable flooding — that forms the documentary’s central cohering thread. Their only hope is the daughter who gets a job as a servitor on the barge that travels up and down the river, giving American tourists a last glimpse of a world about to disappear. The daughter, renamed “Cindy” to assist Western ears, has to learn English and slot herself into China’s rapidly industrialising and globalising economy — the one that is turning right towards capitalism, while, as one person puts it in the film, still furiously blinking its left-turn indicator.

Up the Yangtze is filled with such ironies, overt or delicate and sad; it’s clear that the dam will, so to speak, damn many people to a poorer, harder life, or at least to the loss of what they have always known. It has already damned a few endangered species and erased much cultural history. Two million people have been displaced; whole cities have become ghosts of sagging concrete.

And, sure, we get that message: life is hard, especially for ordinary, poor people, who tend to get crushed beneath the vast wheels of– or drowned by the inexorable tide of — history or economic progress or globalisation or whatever term you want to use. This is a storytelling documentary, focusing on particular individuals’ lives in a particular time and place, and is valuable for that.

But I did feel as though I wanted more context and more information. I even felt that I wanted to hear from at least one Chinese government official, to give the state’s view on why the Three Gorges Dam was necessary or useful. Up the Yangtze is not that kind of documentary; it’s not an even-handed investigation. Such things can be googled, I suppose. If there is an activist agenda in Up the Yangtze, or in screening it as part of a focus on globalisation at the TriContinental festival, it does little beyond making one feel helpless about the suffering of others in a place so far away.

Another documentary about China, Please Vote for Me, gives an entirely different insight into related issues. It’s about a classroom of schoolchildren (about six or seven years old) voting for their new class monitor. This is the first time any of them will vote for anything; they are, in fact, just beginning to learn what “democracy” might mean.

Please Vote for Me is one of the 10-part “Why Democracy?” series made by Steps International, which had a strong South African connection; the series was shown on the SABC but rather thrown away at a late hour. Now showing at the Labia in Cape Town, this is a chance to see or re-see some of the series. The Labia has already shown the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which deals with the George W Bush regime and the invasion of Iraq, and will also show Iron Ladies of Liberia, about Africa’s first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Watching Please Vote for Me, I wasn’t entirely clear why the school in China had decided to pursue such an experiment in democracy. Was it contrived for the benefit of the series? At any rate, the documentary is filled with cute kids who, rather amusingly, display some of the problems of a transition to democracy: one of them has barely learned how such a system would work before he turns into Julius Malema and starts intimidating his opponents.

There are lessons here for all of us, especially in a South Africa grappling with constitutional issues and power struggles, with how to protect and enrich our democracy, and whether we are becoming a de facto one-party state. It’s worth asking the question “Why democracy?” and trying to come up with positive answers beyond Winston Churchill’s view that it’s the worst possible form of government — except for all the others.

The TriContinental Film Festival runs from August 15 to 24 in Johannesburg at the Rosebank Nouveau, from August 22 to 31 in Cape Town at the V&A Nouveau, from August 29 to September 4 in Pretoria at the Brooklyn Nouveau and from September 5 to 11 in Durban at the Gateway Nouveau