Sue Williams founded Ambrica Productions with Kathryn Dietz in 1986 to develop and produce documentaries of international scope and interest. Williams received her Bachelor of Arts degree in comparative literature from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Upon graduation, she worked in England researching and writing short documentary films. She received much acclaim as the writer, director, and producer of Ambrica’s first project, the CHINA trilogy, a six-hour epic exploring the turbulent social events that shaped China this century. Williams has a long-standing personal history in China; her grandfather worked there for many years and her mother was raised there. Currently she is producing a new film for Ambrica Productions exploring the human costs of economic reforms and other issues in contemporary China called, China at the Crossroads (working title) to be broadcast nationally on PBS.
How did you initially become interested in China as the subject for a documentary and what prompted you to undertake such an ambitious project? How did your personal history with China impact the focus of the film?
I was first interested in China because my grandparents lived there and my mother was born and grew up there. So I grew up hearing about China, but very superficially, mostly just anecdotes from my mother’s childhood. I never studied Chinese history or culture. I went there for the first time in 1980 because my sister was living in Hong Kong so I made a little trip to China and was stunned. The comparison between mainland China and Hong Kong was just amazing.
I moved to New York in the early 1980s and was working as a film researcher. I was looking for my first project to produce and direct and China was always in the back of my mind. I was working at a film library in New Jersey, the John E. Allen Archive, and we were having lunch one day when I asked whether they had anything on China. John took me into a room and there was this huge rack with dozens and dozens of cans of footage of China which no one had ever gone through. We took down some cans and the first can that I opened had a 1912 Hong Kong documentary in it about the 1911 Revolution. I actually wasn’t aware of its historical significance at the time, but I then started to read about China’s history seriously. I brought Jonathan Spence with me several times. We would look through all these cans and try to identify them because none of them were labeled. There are dates from the edge codes on the negatives and we’d look at them and identify landmarks and people. We just pieced it all together, and that was really the genesis of China in the Revolution.
So, is that what you think made this film really different from other historical documentaries on China, presenting a new insight into the lives of the people at that time?
I think the footage was a big factor, but then we did something which not many people have done either, which is we spent a month in the documentary archives in Beijing. This gave us a lot of footage that hadn’t been widely seen in the West.
I think the one thing that interested me, at a personal level, was that I really wanted to tell this history from a Chinese perspective, not an American one. I didn’t want to ask, “Why is it relevant that Sino-American relations were A, B, or C at the time?” I just really wanted to ask: "Why does a peasant woman join the Communist guerillas? What happened in the village after the Japanese came and massacred people? What was the motivation for soldiers joining the Nationalist Army?"
It’s just not American-centric, and so offers a new perspective.
I understand that you traveled through China in search of the interviewees. Was it the most challenging part of creating the documentary?
I can’t say that it was that hard; people in China in the Revolution were very willing to talk because the story ends well (it ended in 1949) and the government was supportive. What was difficult was that often they would designate who should speak to us and because they were the ones designated to talk about this history, it got very formulaic. They would try to make points sometimes that I wasn’t interested in. We just explained that that’s not what we were looking for; we wanted someone who was a good speaker and had good stories but not someone who had repeated them so many times that they could be reading it from a book or reciting it. But then we would have difficulties that you couldn’t predict. On The Mao Years it was very difficult working there; Born Under the Red Flag was even more difficult.
Why were these two films in particular so much harder to make?
Because these films explore episodes in China’s history that the government doesn’t feel comfortable talking about like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.
Was the documentary shown in China? If so, how was it received?
None of these films have been shown to the general public there. Parts of the trilogy have been shown in some universities, particularly The Mao Years and Born Under the Red Flag. People got very cross with them; The Mao Years not so much because of anything they disagreed with, I think they were very upset that a foreigner made it. What right did I have? And why weren’t Chinese doing this? But I don’t think that they fundamentally disagreed with anything we said because they all know more or less a lot of the truth of what went on. And I know that in Beijing many government people have seen it and while they can’t say they like it, I think they respect it.
How was it received here in America by the Asian American Community?
We’ve had a lot of press in the Chinese media here about the films and it’s been very positive. But we’ve never factored out the Chinese American response per se (like in ratings) so I only know it anecdotally. Many Chinese who have moved here recently have said to me, how come we didn’t know all of this? And they really are learning their history, and it’s kind of a shock for them to see the pictures, especially the pictures in the Cultural Revolution that they haven’t seen before. As for Asian Americans who have been here long term, I think there isn’t much on American television about foreign countries, let alone China, and that perhaps explains the level of interest in this documentary.
Can you talk a little bit about the new documentary that you are working on, China at a Crossroads (working title) and what you hope this film will accomplish? Also, how do these issues differ from what you were attempting to highlight in the China trilogy?
The three films took a look at 20th-century China, and this one is a very contemporary piece. In 1998 WGBH TV, the PBS station in Boston, asked us to go back and make another documentary on how China was becoming more capitalistic and materialistic and how this was changing Chinese society. It was a pretty wide brief. And while I was doing the research trip in March 1998, Zhu Rongji was at the Party Congress announcing that the SOEs, state owned enterprises, had to become self sufficient, if not profitable, and people were going to be laid off, and this whole centerpiece of the Communist economic system had to be able to stand on its own two feet.
So it was a time when people were feeling really uncertain about whether they were going to keep their jobs, whether they were going to keep their healthcare, their apartments, all of the benefits that they had always had with the iron rice bowl. I thought it would be interesting to follow people at different levels of society as they tried to adapt to these new changes.
So we are following some families in Beijing, workers at Capital Steel and at the Number One Machine Tool Plant. We’re following a very successful businessman who has a PR company, and a man who photographs rock bands, and then we’re following events in Shenyang. We’re following the mayor there, as well as the managing director and an ordinary worker at the machine tool plant. We’re also following a few peasant families, one in Shandong, and another from a village in southern Shaanxi.
I guess it’s a very ambitious film because no one has ever made a long-term observational film in China before. We’ve been four times, and the last trip we’re going to make will be in the fall. It’s ambitious because it’s very difficult to consistently get permission to go in and do it (you need permission to be able to get into these factories). And then it’s ambitious because maybe nothing will happen, but that’s the case with any observational documentary, you hope that something happens to your characters, but it doesn’t always.
We’ve been pretty lucky with this one. Their lives have changed a lot, and there’s been a real sea change in the individual’s relationship to society. It’s really interesting. In the beginning there was this real terror of being laid off. What am I going to do? How am I going to support my family? And people just scrambling desperately to keep their jobs. And then they got used to it; two trips later they were kind of used to the idea that they could be laid off any time, and they began to think a little more positively and aggressively: “Well what can I do now?” The last time we went back some workers had, in fact, been laid off, and they are doing all right, they’re finding ways to get by. So they have a much more individualistic approach to their lives now. I think there’s some nostalgia for the way SOEs functioned in the late 1970s and early 80s; people talk about how there was a sense of family. Obviously there were all the petty rivalries and jealousies and restrictions too, but there was also a real sense of community. Now you are really on your own and that’s a very different way of looking at the world.
Of course as that’s happened, another whole element has come to the fore. And that is corruption. As people become more and more economically vulnerable, they have to be able to support themselves and they skirt close to the edges a lot more. Even those who don’t need to are finding all sorts of scams. In fact, the mayor of Shenyang, who is one of our main characters, was forced to resign last Christmas because he had been funneling all sorts of city contracts to his wife and daughter. His wife, daughter, and son are in jail, and he has just been arrested too. So there have been really big changes in our characters’ lives.
So you find convergence of opinions between interviewees from different segments of society?
I think absolutely everybody is fed up with corruption. I mean that’s really a huge issue. You can hardly function in Chinese society without some level of guanxi, but it’s now more than guanxi. What starts as guanxi can quickly become much more and then it just spirals out of control. It’s routine that you have to tip your doctor, or present him with a gift before surgery. What level of gift is appropriate? If you don’t give something, if you can’t afford it, where does that leave you? If you don’t give enough, maybe he won’t do such a good job, or try as hard as he could. So the idea of gift giving can quickly become much more serious. Corruption in China now is like a poison that has spread throughout the whole of society.
How has the US-China relationship affected the attitudes and goals of the interviewees?
Well we weren’t there right after the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and we weren’t there right after the spy plane went down. So we’ve been a little bit lucky. Purely by accident we haven’t been there at one of those times. You know the Chinese have a complicated sort of love-hate relationship with America. They want to stand up to us and they don’t want us to dictate to them, quite rightly. They get very cross, quite justifiably, with our often arrogant attitudes. At the same time, they’re all doing their English language tests so they can come and live and work here. So there is a lot about America that they like. There are very mixed feelings here. It is interesting that it is often university students now who are the most critical of the States, and who really, really want to stand up and say enough is enough. There is a very strong nationalism with this new generation.
Interview conducted by Jennifer Fong, Asia Society.