PBS Frontline: 'Young & Restless in China'

Sue Williams
Wednesday, June 18, 2008 11:00 AM

PBS Frontline producer Sue Williams was online Wednesday, June 18 at 11 a.m. to discuss her film "Young & Restless in China," which presents intimate portraits of nine ambitious young Chinese through the course of four years, examining the reality of their lives as they navigate their way through a changing country.

"Young & Restless in China" will air Tuesday, June 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.


East Meadow, N.Y.: I wonder why, after finding out that she had a step-sister, the daughter who was looking for her mother who was kidnapped never sought to find the step-sister? Also, what stopped the Internet cafe individual from going to see his wife in America, especially after such a long absence from each other? I know that they were married for 10 years before the separation, but still, this must have put a great deal of stress on the marriage and might or must have led to either or both of them being unfaithful to the other.

Sue Williams: She did meet her step-sister, and in fact they have stayed in touch. We didn't have time to put that into the film. I agree about Ben. The marriage is under terrible strain -- I don't know why he doesn't just come here!


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Sue. I watched the documentary and found it incredibly enjoyable. How different and similiar we are! My favorite vignette (is that the right word?) was the young Chinese rapper. As a fan of hip-hop, I think he is a talented young man (and I don't speak Chinese!) and hope his ambitions come to fruition. Any plans on a follow-up?

Sue Williams: We are hoping to do a follow-up, but we're waiting to see what the characters in the film think. None of them have seen it yet!


Littleton, Colo.: Why do you think Haiyan's mother did not go back with Haiyan? Do you believe she was worried that she would be ostracized by her home villagers? Or was she maybe, in some sense, comfortable with her current situation and not willing to change it?

Sue Williams: I was very surprised at her decision. I think it was a combination of not wanting to facing ostracism, and that after all these years maybe she felt more at home there. She also did not like her husband -- Haiyan's father -- at all, and would have had to deal with that situation too.


Arlington, Va.: How is China handling social networking technology (Facebook or Chinese equivalent)? Did students first join the social networking communities and the government reacted, or was it officially allowed from the start?

Sue Williams: You might have seen in the press that Premier Wen Jiaobao has a Facebook page now! I am not exactly sure which came first, but I suspect that students started the social networking. The government must monitor closely, though.


Falls Church, Va.: Will this film be re-aired? I missed the original June 17 showing (yesterday) as noted on the intro.

Sue Williams: I am not sure when it will be rebroadcast in every market, but you always can watch it online at Frontline.org. Just go to the Web site!


Beijing: I am interested in what Americans think about your film. Do they want to know China really?

Sue Williams: I think many Americans are curious about China but there isn't a lot of in-depth coverage in the mainstream media, so it is hard for them. This film was an attempt to help Americans get a sense of ordinary life there.


San Jose, Calif.: Quite an interesting film showing ordinary people's lives in China. Would you be interested in filming some Chinese returnees, the so called "sea turtles"? I have been out of touch with China for more than 10 years, so it's a rather new environment for me too.

Sue Williams: We did film two "returning turtles" in the film -- Lu Dong and Ben Wu. They both returned in 2004 when we started filming.


Ashland, Ore.: How were you able to meet the 9 individuals, and how were you able to obtain such intimate information from them given the seemingly closed society in which they live? Did they have the final say in what could and could not be presented in the documentary? Did they see the documentary before it was broadcast? Are there any potential repercussions to them for having spoken out with such honesty?

It was quite an incredible experience for me to see how much China has changed (in your documentary). I was a student at UCLA in the late '60s and early '70s, and I vividly recall seeing a tour group on campus all dressed in blue with blue Mao hats. That was an extraordinary sight at that time. My parents went to China on a tour in the late '80s, and I have pictures of my father in China wearing a blue Mao hat. So of course that has been my vision of China. Quite different from the "to be rich is glorious!" motto.

Sue Williams: I met the people through friends and contacts. You may be surprised to know how easy it is to talk with people there now. They did not have final say in what was in the documentary and they have not seen it yet. So agreeing to participate was a real act of faith on their parts, because they have no idea how we edited their stories together. Because their stories are so personal, I don't think any of them will get in trouble. I certainly hope not!


Philadelphia: Does China block e-mails by content? Does China block any discussions on Facebook?

Sue Williams: I know they can block Web searches, and while I am not certain about their ability to block e-mails by content, if I were e-mailing someone in a sensitive position about a sensitive subject, I certainly would be very cautious about what I said.


Beijing: I have watched your earlier documentaries as well, but I'm wondering, why haven't you included the story of China's minorities and their places in the new China? Was it difficult to interview them? Were there obstructions in getting these stories out?

Sue Williams: I never have tried to tell the story of China's minorities simply because I have been caught up with trying to understand the history of China in our three films about 20th century China. Then, with "China in the Red" (also a Frontline film), I was trying to understand how the end of communism was being lived. So I just haven't had time to get to the many other, very interesting subjects to explore in China.


Arlington, Va.: Wonderful film. How did Haiyan actually track down her mother? When I heard the beginning of the story I thought her dream of finding her mother would remain that -- a dream. In the structure of the film, it seemed like finding the mom was a relatively easy feat. Could you give some details?

Sue Williams: It was quite a complicated story. Haiyan had been in touch with her mother by phone several times in the past few years, so she knew roughly where she was, just not exactly which village. After her mother started working for the man you see in the film, he was quite open with Haiyan. When we told her we would like to film her trip she talked with the man, who eventually said it was okay to visit. We obviously did not want to show up with cameras and make things worse for the mother.


Ashland, Ore.: We have been enjoying Frontline for years -- always doing our best to carve out time on Tuesday nights. This episode, "Young and Restless in China," was absolutely the best Frontline we have seen. The parallels with the U.S. were uncanny and alarming. The film was heart-wrenching and poignant. Thank you. Can you do one on India?

Sue Williams: Thanks very much. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Funnily enough, India is high on my radar screen these days -- so who knows!


Appelton, Wis.: I have read with great interest the near universal accolades expressed by your viewers; however, from my limited experience with Chinese citizens, I could not help but feel that the documentary skewed too darkly, portraying only individuals seemingly outside of the mainstream of China's economic success. While their lives may be of interest and perhaps fairly presented, they do not necessarily represent the totality of China's youth, many of whom still possess rampant optimism and unflagging loyalty to achieving to their respective dreams.

Sue Williams: When we started filming we had no idea what would happen to our characters -- we couldn't know if things would turn out well or badly for them. I actually see quite a lot of positive things in the film. The businessmen are doing well at work, Wei Zhanyan had the incredible courage to break off her engagement and has found someone she really cares about, rapper Wang Xiaolei will pick himself up from his unhappy love story and get on with his life. They still have their dreams. But of course you are right, there are hundreds of millions of young people in China, and we only could feature nine!


Harrisburg, Pa.: I want to confirm/spike something that I've heard discussed. As far as you know, is English widely taught throughout China? I even have heard it mentioned that, because there are various languages within China, English is often the language used between people from different parts of China. Is this correct?

Sue Williams: English is taught in all schools from an early age. In many companies, a great deal of the work is done in English. But it is not used as a common language by people who speak the different languages and dialects. Written Chinese is the same throughout the country. What often is done between people who can't understand a word or phrase is they sort of write the character with their fingers on their hand, showing the other person as they explain. And of course, often people just can't communicate!


Columbia, Md.: Hello Sue. I was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to the United States when I was 10 years old (in 1983). The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul revitalized South Korea tremendously. Do you think the 2008 Summer Olympics will revitalize China in the same way? Are you planning to do any films in Korea? Thanks.

Sue Williams: So much has happened that no one expected in China this year that I don't feel very confident predicting what will happen with the Olympics! The economy doesn't seem to need much revitalizing there, but certainly the hope in China is that the Games will put the country on the world stage in a positive way. I don't have any plans to make a film in Korea, but I certainly would love to visit -- and then who knows what might happen!


Portland, Maine: Ms. Williams, I thought your documentary did an excellent job of portraying the stresses endured by young Chinese as a byproduct of the nation's growing pains. It truly is a world caught between old values and modern ideals. As a recent college graduate who has been to China three times to work, study and travel, I greatly appreciated the personal approach that you took to this film. It effectively humanized a place that is utterly baffling to many Westerners. As a student of the Chinese language and journalism, how do you suggest I begin to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking in China?

Sue Williams: I'm not really qualified to advise on starting a career in filmmaking in China. There are a few production companies that have Web sites there, though. You might want to Google that and see if you can connect with any of them.


Philadelphia: Among the youth you have observed in China, how aware were they of other countries, and what were their feelings towards relations with other countries, in particular Taiwan, Japan, Korea and the United States?

Sue Williams: I think they are very aware of Taiwan, Japan and Korea and draw a lot culturally from those countries. Singers and fashion from those three are very popular. And as you can see from the rapper in the film, young people are very interested in popular culture in America. It would be hard to make generalizations about their political attitudes, but I think young Chinese are very curious -- and mostly positive -- about all these places.


Sacramento, Calif.: Hi Sue. Wonderful production -- the story moved at a good pace and the host of characters were interesting. How did you get the project off the ground? How did you hook up with "Frontline"/PBS? Are you freelance? How did you get your funding?

Sue Williams: We got initial funding from Katzenbach Partners, a management consulting company here in New York. They are doing a study of 130 Chinese MBAs and we thought there might be a synergy with them. WGBH came in with early production dollars as well. As we went along we wrote lots of grant applications to many foundations and got lucky with a few. I have a small production company and we worked with Frontline on our last China film, "China in the Red."


Sue Williams: Thanks for all your great questions. Please tell your friends to watch the film online and check out the Web site. There is a lot more about the background of the film there, and space to post comments as well.


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