Documentary captures drama of relocation
Situated on the northern bank of the Yangtze River, at the entrance of Qutang Gorge, Fengjie, in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, is the first town at the western end of the Three Gorges.
"It was very small and dirty," Zhang said of Fengjie, which had a history of more than 2,000 years and which inspired Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) poet Li Bai to call it the "White Emperor City."
"At that time I thought to myself, if I had been born there, the first thing I would have done after learning to walk was leave," Zhang said.
But Zhang soon discovered that the local people, many of whom could trace their ancestors back several generations, found it hard to leave the town, which was to be inundated in 2002 to make way for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
Started in 1993, the Three Gorges Dam project is designed to generate electricity and contain floods on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.
The Fengjie residents, numbering some 90,000 in the urban area, are among the 1.17 million local people who have moved out of their old homes in the reservoir areas in Chongqing and neighbouring Hubei Province before the world's largest hydropower plant is completed in 2009.
"Shooting in the disappearing town was like a war. Buildings were torn down at every corner of Fengjie, and we risked being hit by flying bricks at any moment," Zhang said.
More intriguing, however, was recording and narrating how the local residents dealt with migration - their nostalgia for bygone hometowns, their gains and losses, the fundamental changes in lifestyles, and the conflicts between the inner and outer worlds during the process.
Zhang said there have been extensive reports in the media on the migration, a major part of their coverage of the Three Gorges Project.
However, regrettably, there has not been enough coverage of the feelings and stories of the individuals involved in the migration.
Zhang and his crew were trying to make up for what was missing. A highlight during their three-year-long project in Fengjie was how the local people responded to their migration, even to a new town that had already been built only 10 kilometres west of the old county seat. The new town would accommodate about 90,000 migrants. The dwelling places of the migrants were to be decided by draw.
Zhang and his crew worked hard to document the events and the people involved in these crucial and sensitive moments.
Almost everybody was closely related to the migration because it would affect their individual interests and the quality of their future lives, Zhang recalled.
"No one could bear the pretense of being above worldly considerations," Zhang said. "Everybody strived after their rights and interests. The excellence and flaws of human nature were revealed.
"It was quite interesting," Zhang said.
The focus of the dispute was whether a draw was the most appropriate way to decide dwelling places in the new town.
Some people, like retired government employer Zhan Guangze, insisted that apartments in the new town should be distributed according to people's dwelling places in the old town - those who used to live downtown should also be allowed to occupy a place in the most prosperous sector of the new town.
Others, like retired soldier Zhao Sili and laid-off worker Xiao Degui, complained that the compensation money they got hardly makes up for the losses they suffered.
Did they finally get their problems solved? Zhang and his crew have raised the suspense in their documentary series entitled "A View of the Back of Three Gorges" (Bei Ying).
Produced by China Central Television (CCTV), the largest TV network in China, the 12-part series is being aired on CCTV Channel 1, at 11:26 pm every Monday to Wednesday until the end of May.
Zhang said he was able to understand the local people throughout the crew's stay in the town. "People in Fengjie used to live a slow and old-fashioned life," he said. "The place was full of aged small lanes - no broad streets, no traffic lights."
The new town, on the contrary, is a very modern one illuminated by neon lights, said Zhang, adding that during that transition, many interesting changes were worth recording and studying.
Zhang said that he and his crew members spent time every day on an open area about the size of a football field, which the local people called "People's Square."
Local residents spent their time in a leisurely manner, chatting, taking a walk, or playing cards or mah-jong.
"Gradually I realized the people in the 'People's Square' in Fengjie were no different to those who spent their leisure time in narrow hutong alleys and siheyuan courtyards in Beijing, or those in linong in Shanghai," said Zhang, adding that he'd developed an attachment to the people of Fengjie.
The director's original plan was to send five teams to shoot all the 10 inundated county seats, to make a 50-part documentary.
Because of funding shortages and some other reasons, however, the documentary that finally comes out has only 12 parts. Still, he said he felt quite proud of the final product.
"The Three Gorges migration is one of the most important things in the 20th century for China," he said. "I was lucky enough to be present and record it in detail with the camera.
"Documentaries are sketches of history. Now the ancient town of Fengjie has gone forever, I am proud that my documentary offers people of later generations access to what happened there," he said.
And if money and time allows, he said, he will continue to shoot documentaries in the Three Gorges areas.