Three Gorges exposé wins top prize at film festival

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The Independent Culture

Jia Zhangke, China's hippest film director, has won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for Still Life, his movie about one of the country's most controversial subjects, the Three Gorges Dam.

Significantly, Still Life won the Golden Lion just a few days after Jia's fellow director Lou Ye was banned from making movies for five years for submitting Summer Palace - a romance set against the backdrop of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests - in Cannes, without official approval.

As an independent director, most of Jia's output is not shown in China as his films are made without official permission, although his previous film, The World, about workers at a Wonders of the World-style theme park outside Beijing, was given general release.

A graduate of the presitigious Beijing Film Academy, Jia's first film, Xiao Wu, a gritty realist work about a pickpocket in a small town in his native Shanxi province, was a strong debut. The follow-up, Platform, a three-hour epic detailing the life of a music troupe, takes a poetic look at the process of change in China, while Unknown Pleasures, shot on video, is a stark take on the country's modernisation.

"Censorship still exists in China and obviously as a director it's painful not to have my movies shown in cinemas," Jia said. "What makes me happy is that I didn't have to change my films to fit society, but instead that society has changed. I hope this will continue."

The French actress Catherine Deneuve, who headed the prize jury, praised the beauty of the cinematography and said the story was moving without being political.

Still Life may not be explicitly political, but it is hard to avoid the political aspect of the Three Gorges Dam project. More than a million people were flooded out of their homes by the dam, the world's largest hydroelectricity dam, a project mired in controversy for its human and environmental impact and notorious for corruption.

The film is set in the new towns built to house the people moved by the dam and features characters who are kicked out of their homes. Jia said: "There is major change going on in China and I wanted to get more people to know what's happening. Many journalists, international and national, wrote reports and questioned the Three Gorges project. But once it was completed they stopped. I know the population is still suffering from it."

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