Under One Roof
A short documentary shot by director Qiao Qiao looks unflinchingly into the destruction of China’s few remaining wildlife habitats
Heavy trucks roar across the loess plateau, leaving in their wake a pall of thick dust that threatens to obliterate the dens of hares and wild rodents. An antelope desperately tries to struggle free from a farmer’s wire fence.
These are scenes from Lost, a short documentary cut together with no additional narration. The film documents the violent deaths of wild animals; a relentless montage of bleeding beaks, broken necks, devastated dens, parched and cracked land, and looming smokestacks.
Qiao Qiao, the 28-year-old director of Lost, condensed 2,000 hours of footage shot in China’s wilderness over the past five years into a 12 minute short. By June 17, his finished film had racked up 2.5 million views on Internet video sites.
With no commercial sponsorship, Qiao funded his documentary by selling his car and his apartment in Beijing, earning him a total of 2 million yuan (US$31,700). Since then, he has been living in tents and huts on China’s remotest frontiers.
Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and chairman of The Nature Conservancy (China), remarked, “Wildlife shares our homeland. Spreading this documentary is tantamount to saving lives. I’m deeply moved by the devotion and perseverance of Qiao and his team.”
Qiao was born in 1985 into a family of practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine in Henan Province. He chose a completely different path to that of his parents, and enrolled in a screenwriting course at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA). There, he went on to explore documentary filmmaking, specializing in nature documentaries – a genre neither of his parents had ever seen or heard of.
A year before his graduation, Qiao was working on a comedy film about village life. While he was location scouting in a rural village, he witnessed a pair of swallows building a nest under the eaves of a recently married couple’s home. His director’s instinct told him the juxtaposition of the swallows and the newlyweds constructing new lives under one roof would be a good subject for a documentary.
Qiao shot his new movie, titled Nesting, over the next three months. His favorite scene is one in which the young husband and wife took care of a baby swallow that had suffered heatstroke. His experiences fueled a belief that animals share the same emotions as human beings. However, Qiao struggled to find Chinese-made wildlife documentaries that explored this idea. He became determined to construct a documentary from the perspective of the animals themselves.
When Qiao graduated from the BFA in 2008, he assembled a six-person crew and started shooting on wetlands in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Qiao’s plan was fairly simple: First, he would gather an enormous pool of footage; then, create his narrative.
His idea failed spectacularly. His actors, in this case wild waterfowl, weren’t inclined to take direction, and hours of shooting time were wasted in a futile attempt to capture utterly unpredictable behavior. Often, even if an opportunity presented itself, the stars of the show would have flown away long before the crew was in position.
More worryingly, while wildlife documentaries are notoriously expensive to shoot, Qiao had no source of funding. Few Chinese production companies are willing to invest in factual entertainment when there is little prospect for a return. China has a long tradition of simply importing foreign-made wildlife documentaries – a method that works out far cheaper than sinking millions into the kind of high production values and long shooting schedules the genre requires.
Even after Qiao had sold his car and his home, he barely had enough funding to cover his labor costs. If it hadn’t been for a single stroke of luck, he may have abandoned his project altogether.
In the spring of 2010, while aimlessly rooting through scrubland for birdlife, Qiao noticed some abnormal movement beneath a mossy bank. He confirmed his suspicions through his viewfinder – Qiao had spotted a rare gray crane. This endangered wading bird would typically migrate north to its summer breeding grounds at this time of year, yet here it was. As Qiao watched, he saw another gray crane sitting alongside the first. He realized that this second bird was nursing its injured mate.
“That sight touched the softest place in my heart,” Qiao told our reporter.
Qiao spent his childhood in a picturesque rural village, spending his days swimming in the clean, fish-laden rivers looking for giant salamanders. However, he told our reporter, rapid urbanization and industrialization has destroyed the places he remembers from his childhood, with smog replacing blue skies and chemical contaminants conquering the waterways. “There are no longer any fish in the river,” he said.
Fearing the total loss of China’s wildlife to the march of “development,” Qiao claims to have created a new genre – the “eco-doc,” sticking to tried-and-true shooting methods: filming in camouflage; resisting the temptation to disturb or attract animals for better shots; keeping locations a secret; and withholding footage of rare animal lairs until those lairs are abandoned.
Due to ever-present funding issues, Qiao’s six-person crew has been downsized to just Qiao and a single assistant. Together, they have traveled across the country, sleeping on camp beds and often going for days on survival rations. They sometimes stay in guesthouses, but often camp in open fields.
As the range of locations has grown (Qiao claims he and his assistant claim to have visited all China’s major highlands and wetlands), so has the list of environmental catastrophes Qiao is witnessing first hand. They’ve seen rich pasture turned to a contaminated wasteland in the mining region of Ordos, Inner Mongolia. They have smelled the stench of toxic waste dumps in the Tengger Desert. They’ve seen people skinning dogs alive while others use nets to capture rare birds. On the shores of Lake Qinghai, Qiao watched locals defy a fishing ban by building fish traps specifically to capture endangered species. One particularly heart-rending scene in Lost shows a rare Asian red-capped lark lose its tidal flat home after the opening of the Xiaolangdi dam on the Yellow River.
Soon, Qiao found himself unable to stand by and watch humans wreak destruction upon the animals he cared so much about. This has led him to deviate from the traditional role of passive onlooker, and stray into controversial territory.
Once when shooting in the Yellow River’s shrinking wetlands, Qiao rescued a tern’s nest from an incoming flood caused by nearby dredging, along with two baby terns and an unhatched egg which Qiao incubated in his armpit. Ultimately, only the eldest baby tern survived, and Qiao named it Little Gull. Little Gull ultimately became a companion to Qiao, following him home and allowing him to bathe it. He finally released it after Little Gull reached adulthood, and Qiao did not allow his final farewell to be filmed.
On another occasion, while shooting in the Shanxi section of the Yellow River on a 104 degree day, Qiao came across an injured heron. The bird was trying to crawl up a steep escarpment but kept falling back down. With the help of his assistant and several villagers, Qiao descended the cliff in a harness, and fed the heron with fish laced with antibiotics. Upon returning the next day, Qiao found the heron to be on the way to recovery.
While actively intervening to prevent the death of animals would likely earn Qiao few friends in zoological or documentarian circles, his work in spreading awareness of the human threats to wildlife habitats has earned him widespread acclaim. While on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Qiao discovered that enclosed meadows had severed ancient migration routes. He suggested to the local government that they remove the fences, as well as advising them to construct some underground reservoirs to combat drought. He was amazed to see both suggestions implemented within a year.
As time has passed, Qiao has matured as both a filmmaker and conservationist. In 2011, he launched a young director’s program called “Protect the Environment with your Camera,” charging participants to produce five to ten wildlife documentaries each year.
When Jong Lin, a well-regarded Taiwanese nature photographer, learned about Qiao’s undertakings, he custom-built a multifunctional rig for Qiao’s exclusive use. In the field, three or four cameras set at varying angles are often needed simultaneously for close-up, medium-range, and panoramic shots. Three cameras can be mounted on the rig, which Lin personally delivered, along with ample advice on how Qiao could improve his shots.
In 2012, Qiao called on an Internet friend to help him promote Lost on a crowd-sourcing website. Qiao set a funding target of 150,000 yuan (US$24,450), which was swiftly met by 435 donors. After Lost became an online hit, Qiao’s microblog attracted 180,000 followers, and he has been featured in the official media. Qiao’s parents had been largely unaware of his success until they saw a China Central Television (CCTV) report on their son.
Despite his newfound celebrity, Qiao remains a loner. He told our reporter that filming in the wilderness is a lonely experience. “What I film are animals, but what I’m actually trying to save are human beings,” he said.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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