From China, stories of crisis and hopeBy Tamara Straus
San Francisco Chronicle | page E – 1 | June 26, 2008
Gao Jun, an HIV-infected, orphaned toddler who is shunned... Ruby Yang won an Oscar for her documentary "The Blood of ... Ruby Yang moved back to China from San Francisco to make ... The staff of the Chang Ai Media Project, based in Beijing... More...
"Sometimes naivete is a good thing," says Ruby Yang about her decision in 2003 to sell her Bernal Heights home and move to Beijing to make documentaries about the AIDS epidemic in China.
The Hong Kong-born San Francisco Art Institute graduate had just finished editing "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience," Bill Moyers' highly acclaimed PBS documentary about Chinese immigration and assimilation. While working on the project with series producer Thomas Lennon, she discovered they shared a desire to address the growing rate of HIV and AIDS in China.
A partnership was formed, but the two faced significant challenges. Financing was difficult to get, and access to the rural areas in China where the infection rate was as high as 20 percent, because of botched blood donations, was harder. Even Yang's Chinese American friends balked at the audaciousness of the project.
"I'd call them and say, 'I'm going to do AIDS in China. Will you help me?' " Yang recalls during a recent interview at Video Arts in San Francisco, where she was finishing postproduction on her newest documentary. " 'No, they said. It's too sensitive.' "
But five years later, Yang, 52, and Lennon are basking in their audaciousness. Their film, "The Blood of Yingzhou District," a searing portrait of Gao Jun, an HIV-infected orphaned toddler who is shunned because relatives mistakenly fear they will contract the virus by living with him, won a 2007 Academy Award in the best documentary/short subjects category. That film, as well as the just-finished "Tongzhi in Love (A Double Life)," will be shown Saturday as part of the Frameline32 film festival.
What's more, their public service announcements about AIDS, starring international celebrities like Yao Ming and Magic Johnson, have helped change public opinion about the disease. The 30-second spots, which Lennon wrote and Yang directed, were the first major AIDS prevention ads to air on Chinese state-run television. They have been seen by more than 400 million people - in airports, subways, elevators and stores - and that's a conservative estimate, Lennon says by phone from his office in New York City.
Yang and Lennon attribute the success of their AIDS awareness ads, and their AIDS-related documentaries, to good timing. They directed their energies toward China at just the moment when the government began to acknowledge its AIDS epidemic. In 2003, Chinese authorities were forced to reach out to the international medical community to deal with an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Such contact led to a broad effort to identify and treat China's estimated 830,000 people with AIDS, as well as to launch a prevention campaign.
Suddenly, funding came through from the Starr and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, and Yang and Lennon were able to start a film production company in Beijing now called the Chang Ai ("Love and Care") Media Project and to create a series of documentaries for Chinese TV - among them a 30-minute film about an HIV-positive student who won a battle to remain in college. The film is considered one of the most candid explorations of premarital sex to be aired on Chinese TV.
As for the making of "The Blood of Yingzhou District," it "hinged on one introduction," says Lennon - a businesswoman named Zhang Ying who had organized a small charity to help the orphans of Yingzhou.
Lennon, who produced the film but did not go on location because a foreign-looking person among the crew could have caused problems, says that "China is a society where trust is growing, but it's in more limited supply than a lot of societies. So the people are very careful. The personal introduction is 80 percent of the thing."
That sense of caution and fear is captured in "Yingzhou District" and in "Tongzhi in Love (A Double Life)," a 30-minute documentary about three Beijing friends navigating the dilemmas of being gay in modern China.
Yang and her husband, Lambert Yam, a film producer who used to run the World Theater in San Francisco's Chinatown, have found Beijing hard going at times, especially the year they spent documenting the AIDS orphans in Anhui province.
"I always tell people I've spent three years in China, but it feels as if I've spent a decade," she says. "When I go there I just work, work, work. I don't take off weekends. But it has been the most satisfying experience of my life."
For their next big effort, Yang and Lennon will focus on tobacco use in China, perhaps the country's most glaring public health problem. One out of every 3 cigarettes in the world is smoked in China, and annually 800,000 Chinese die from tobacco-related illnesses.
"That scale of suffering is not normal, does not have to be," says Lennon. He and Yang have spent 18 months lining up support in the Chinese government, which Lennon says has been "very forthcoming," and trying to find philanthropic money for a series of public service announcements.
Although a tobacco-related media campaign is complicated because of the economic interests involved, Lennon says, "the timing is there." He cites Beijing's announcement last year for a smoke-free Olympics - "a signal that the issue was ripe for moving on."
"It's rare for a filmmaker to prevent loss of life," Lennon says about his commitment to AIDS prevention and other public health issues in China. "If you get that chance and don't seize it, you're a fool."
But Lennon and Yang are ready to hand off their work in China to the students and young professionals they've been training at the Chang Ai Media Project. The organization is possibly the first of its kind: a Beijing media company founded by Americans that works closely with the Chinese government and receives grants and funding from international organizations such as the U.N. Development Programme.
"We really want the local staff to take over and train more people," says Yang, who has set 2011 as the pullout date. "Already, the staff is working on its own. One young woman made a public service announcement about the earthquake in Tong-Shan. She interviewed a lot of survivors, and we're going to stream that on the Internet."
Yang says she intends to return to San Francisco, though for now China holds her focus.
"China is like an adolescent, a teenager," she says. "It's hyperactive and I like to be part of that. I want to be a teenager, too."