The Yangtze, that great waterway of China, starts in the Tibetan plateau and winds its way across over 6,000 kilometres to the sea at Shanghai. ‘No matter what part of the country you are from in China,’ says filmmaker Yung Chang, ‘you have a deep connection to it.’

‘The thing about the Yangtze is that it is the lifeline of China. It is known as Chang Jiang, the ‘long river’ and you can even just call it The River, in fact.’

As a Chinese-Canadian, Yung Chang’s connection with the Yangtze was remote but his maternal grandfather used to tell him stories about it. His grandfather had escaped from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 during the civil war and had plenty to tell his young grandson about the country of their ancestors. Yung Chang first went to China in 1997, and then he and his grandfather took a trip along the Yangtze together in 2002.

Yung Chang later returned on his own to make a documentary about the river, using his grandfather’s stories as a reference. In post-production one of his grandfather’s songs, recorded only a few years ago, was laid on the soundtrack.

The result of Yung Chang’s personal journey into the land of his forefathers is a highly-regarded, prize winning documentary that has won best doco awards at festivals in the US and Canada and a highly-prized nomination for the Joris Ivens prize at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. It recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival and I spoke to Yung Chang over the phone soon afterwards.

He told me that Up the Yangtze was filmed in Chongqing municipality, home to a mere 30 million people. It is actually that part of the river that lives in the collective Chinese cultural memory as the place where fierce battles were fought before the Three Kingdoms were established. Today, this part of heartland China is where the controversial Three Gorges Dam project is flooding the cities, towns and countryside where people have lived and worked for millennia.

‘Around two million people have lost their livelihood to the dam,’ says Yung Chang.

‘I think it was reported statistically that in 2004 – and the number is increasing yearly – there were 70,000 reported incidents of civil unrest. I think the Three Gorges basin really is very contentious. The major question being how do you put a monetary value on your ancestral home, on your ancestral farmland, or the land where your ancestral tombs stand? It’s a central question. It’s a difficult question and it has met with quite a bit of controversy.’

The film sets out on a ‘farewell tour’, aboard a one of the cruise ships that punt up and down through the areas where the towns, villages and farmlands along the banks of the Yangtze will be claimed by slowly rising waters. Shots of the already empty ‘ghost city’ of Fengdu are eerie and unsettling.

The film moves at a languid pace. ‘River travel is so different from riding in a car. And I especially wanted to reflect the eyes and minds of the subjects I followed, their day-to-day rhythms.’

To bring this extraordinary piece of population relocation and social engineering down to a personal level, Yung Chang chose as his subjects a young girl Shui Yu and a young man Bo Yu Chen, of very different backgrounds and dispositions, who work in hospitality jobs on board Farewell Cruises. The girl is so painfully shy that she doesn’t seem like a particularly good subject for the film, but her story is so compelling it eventually takes over.

‘Despite being a very shy and introverted personality she seemed to have something very complex within, and then beyond that there was the fact that her family was living on the banks of the river.’

I suggest that Cindy (Shui Yu’s English name) struck me as a typical teenager – grumpy, resentful of her well-meaning parents, both illiterate, and the life in a makeshift hut on the riverbank that she wanted to escape. ‘Yes, I think it’s sort of universal. What resonates with me in particular is the scene where the parents go to visit the girl on the boat, and the sort of awkwardness and embarrassment at having your parents around.’

Bo Yu Chen (English name of Jerry) is an altogether different story, boasting about how he’d received a $30 tip ‘for nothing’ and how he was only attentive to the middle-aged men and women who he expected would tip him well – the elderly and infirm left to their own devices.

How did Yung Chang get him to reveal himself like that? ‘It was very funny. In fact I did nothing. When I first met him he struck me as someone who was raised in the West. He was very brash and no matter how hard I tried to make him not interact with the camera, he loved to look into the lens, talk to us the filmmakers. He would never listen to me. Eventually we let Jerry be interactive, and it works. It defines him in the film.’

Canadian author and journalist Jan Wong has mentioned to Yung Chang that she thinks the future of China may be in the hands of boys like Jerry. ‘Part of this post-Mao (Zedong) generation of children who are growing up in the world of MTV, who perhaps will be responsible for carrying democratic reform forward in China. Partly based on their individualism, on their ‘little emperor syndrome’ as a result of the one-child policy and growing affluence. It’s quite an interesting theory.’

‘I don’t know quite what is going to happen to Jerry, but I have a feeling he will figure it out.’

In the end Yung Chang thinks his film is about perspectives. ‘About how one culture sees another culture and vice versa and that’s what interested me in making it. The culture of tourism.’