Filmmaker takes on China's taboos


SINGAPORE -- Documentary maker Ruby Yang is laying bare some of China's thorniest issues -- HIV/AIDS, tobacco and the ravages of smoking, homosexuality and the environment.

She's doing much of it with the full support of state organizations in China, where censorship remains fierce and authorities are noted more for clamping down on sensitive domestic issues than for exposing them to the world.

Yang's 39-minute Academy Award-winning film, "The Blood of Yingzhou" (2006), funded by the Starr Foundation, tracks a year in the life of AIDS orphans in China's Anhui Province.

She followed that up in November with three public service advertisements promoting condom use, using celebrities like Jackie Chan.

The shorts, produced with the support of the Ministry of Health, were the first condom advertisements to air on state-owned broadcaster China Central Television's national network, CCTV 1.

Next up is a documentary on gay life and the pressures created by China's one-child policy.

"There's a lot of pressure to produce an heir," Yang says. "Many gay men are married and live a double life. They lie to their parents, lie to their wives."

The half-hour film, provisionally called "Double Life," is expected to be completed by May, but Yang is not counting on a public release in China. Instead, she hopes the film will get exposure on the international festival circuit.

Yang also is working with China's Center for Disease Control on ways to promote a smoke-free 2008 Olympics in a country with 350 million smokers. "That's bigger than the population of the U.S.," Yang says, adding that the government realizes the health costs. "About 50,000 people die of AIDS a year in China, but 1 million die of tobacco-related diseases," she says.

Yang's other pet project is two- to three-minute films for the Internet profiling environmental "heroes." Raising money for the environmental series has been tough.

"A lot of multinationals are willing to give support for AIDS because it's really hot, but the environment and pollution is very sensitive," she says. "Usually polluters are big business, so it comes down to the government. Al Gore is helping in the West, but in China it's a different case.

"Foundations are more into global warming than pollution. The carbon economy is really big, but China's basic problem is water pollution," she says.

Yang's professional life is not all about causes with deadly consequences. Also on her slate is a 60-minute documentary for PBS in the U.S. on San Francisco's Chinatown.

The film, "A Moment in Time," is a "tribute to the older folks and the movies they love," Yang says.

The filmmaker lived in San Francisco for 25 years before moving to Beijing in 2003 with her husband, who used to run a movie theater in Chinatown.

"It's very uplifting, very different from the sad movies," she says, adding, "I need the balance."