Readings of John Rash's documentary Yangtze Drift (2014) depend on the audience viewing this non-narrative documentary. An audience familiar with the history and context of the river and the Three Gorges Dam will view the film differently than will an audience unfamiliar with that context or observing it only from the outside.
For us, this beautiful documentary short broaches issues explored in Up the Yangtze (2007), which showcases lives transformed by the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in history. Yangtze Drift provides a seemingly objective view of the river environment and its people, but it also left us with multiple questions:
· What does the audience think about the environmental consequences to the Yangtze now that the dam is complete?
· Is this river now placid because of this result?
· How would an outside audience understand the changes created by the dam?
· Do local audiences who watch it accept these changes as natural? How does the rhetoric differ for this audinence?
· Do they accept the new eco-system created by the dam as something that remains unquestioned?
· What changes have occurred off screen?
From an outsider perspective, waving weeds open and close Yangtze Drift and serve as both an introduction to the drifting river and a frame for this direct cinema poem.
After an overhead shot of the river, we hear singing before the film fades to black and changes scenes to another overhead shot on shore of buildings, trees, and ruined skyscrapers.
The shot pans past this part of the city to a highway near the shore. Shots of cars seem to roll into images boats and the river. From above the Yangtze looks silent and flat, but as the camera moves closer, we see ripples. As if peering through tourists’ lenses, we see flowing shore grasses and a smaller boat passing by.
A man rows and sings. Other rippled surfaces reflect the water—an old woman’s face, shadows of waves on a wall where the river seems to have flooded up to a door.
Other scenes show people looking out windows at the river. One takes pictures. A boat floats by.
When rain begins, ripples in geometric shapes form in wash basins and large noodle pots. Shot in low angle, the flow of water seems to transform a street into a stream. The rain continues in the widening river, forming works of abstract art on the water.
Tourists on board a tour boat photograph the river and shore under umbrellas. Here the river is surrounded by cliffs. A small motorboat goes by the larger tour boat, revealing the lack of diegetic sound on board. We hear murmurings of voices, but the small boat’s loud engine stands out.
Back on shore at another spot on the river, people exercise on a beach. A fisherman drips his line in the water off some rocks.
Across the river, a city appears, and the camera shifts again to another overhead shot of skyscrapers lit for night. The pan of this city moves down to young people on steps beside the river listening to a band play “Let it Be” from the Beatles. A woman with a dog wades in the water. Vendors sell barbecue on sticks. Couples look out at lit skyscrapers. Cell phones are everywhere.
This pan transforms into part of what looks like a tourism film of the evolution of a mega city. On various screens, images of birds on the river appear. A poster advertises the Tribe of the Three Gorges, but includes pictures of women with machine guns, as well. A rapidly moving tour bus goes past, and then we are on board among the diverse tourists of various races and nationalities. The river is wide and deep. A tour guide points out various sites, including a dam under construction. Is it the Three Gorges Dam? The explanation of the huge mountains on both sides is in English.
But then it seems we are back to our opening setting. We hear thunder and watch the singing man row his boat. Shadows of water ripples replicate the river on the walls he passes. A note on a boat claims this is the number one water town in China. Pedestrians cross over a bridge. Crowds walk by the camera. Boats float on the water and birds float over grasses blowing in the breeze. The screen grows darker and the film ends.
When the title comes up, however, it shows a drawing of the bridge and the filmmaker’s name end the film, leaving us wondering if both the river environment and the human constructions around it are artificial. This view of the river is making a statement, but that statement differs according to the audience viewing it.