How did you come to learn about this particular group of basketball players among the Tibetan nomads?
Well, I went to Ritoma in 2012 and made a short film there. At that time, I was doing a video on sustainability, so I knew about Ritoma and the nomad workshop. The locals’ favourite pastime was playing basketball – they don’t have the space for football pitches. I kept in touch with them. When I went back to visit in 2016, many things had changed. That’s when I met Bill, the coach of the local basketball team. They told me about a tournament that was happening and I asked if I could back to shoot it. They said yes and that’s how I started the film.
How did life change for the nomads between 2012 and 2016?
When I first visited them in 2012, they had started learning about the internet. And for a remote region, that’s huge because when you describe the outside world to them, they can’t envision it. But through references on the internet, like pictures and videos, they can see how people live in the rest of the world. That was just the beginning. Of course, things are not changing as fast as in a big city, but you can see that the traditional way of living – the nomadic herding – is eventually going to be replaced by something different.
Although the nomads are being economically empowered through education and learning new skills, in giving up herding, they’re having to fight to preserve their culture and traditions. Did you come to any conclusions about which was more important, their economic independence or their culture?
I don’t think you can come to any conclusion. You can only observe and witness the transition. In my observations, I think eventually they will have to change their way of living because young people are not herding anymore. Children are not going to continue being nomads. I think eventually they will find another way to live. Already the number of nomads is starting to shrink.
You were born in Hong Kong and moved to the US in 1977. Later, you returned to Hong Kong to teach documentaries at the University of Hong Kong. How do you think your background has influenced you as a documentary filmmaker?
I’m an outsider. I think that’s an advantage because you see things differently. You look at things that people living in their community take for granted. For me, it’s the small incidents that people are not aware of that I’m interested in. Aside from being an outsider, I’m also a very curious person, which helps when making films. And also, the question of identity. I’m very interested in identity because being born in Hong Kong, the question of identity always come up – whether you are a Hong Kong Chinese or British Chinese. Who are you?
Can you introduce our readers to your previous documentary films showing at Life is Art?
Let me talk about Tongzi in Love because it was done 10 years ago in Beijing. What’s interesting about gay men in China is that most of them are single children under the one-child policy, so the pressure for them to get married and have offspring is huge. Another thing is the countryside and the city. A lot of the men live a double life: in the city, they can come out of the closet and live a free life as a gay man. But in the countryside, they might be married with kids, so they have to return to the countryside once a year. That’s very obvious in China and it still happens today. I find it very interesting, that’s why I did a film about it. My Voice, My Life is sort of my first film. It’s about a group of young people. They put their efforts into a musical. In one summer, their lives are slightly transformed by that musical. I made the film because I love music and I like working with young people. The film was quite impactful and did quite well, to my surprise.
Documentary filmmaking may be a niche scene in Hong Kong – at least compared to all the triad thrillers and action movies our city pumps out – but there’s one big name in the genre that every Hongkonger ought to know – Ruby Yang. Internationally acclaimed for her work, the Hong Kong-born filmmaker won the 2007 Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for The Blood of Yingzhou District, her look at Aids-infected children in Anhui Province, China.
Constantly exploring the notion of identity, Yang’s work is receiving a retrospective at this year’s Life is Art film festival. As well as films like My Voice, My Life and Tongzhi in Love, fans can also see the local premiere of her newest film, Ritoma. Yang’s latest documentary takes viewers on a journey to the Tibetan Plateau. Using basketball as a metaphor for the collision of tradition and modernity, the film captures the Tibetans’ ongoing transition from a traditional to a modern life.
Ahead of the film festival, we speak to Yang about her new work and get her thoughts on her career as a whole. By Gigi Wong