Every morning he would wake when she awoke to start the fire and every night he’d sleep only once she had gone to bed. They were in one of the most remote villages in China – a place difficult to get to and a place not easy to survive in. The girl had first piqued Ricky’s attention because she had made a decision that so many young people in rural China contemplate – moving to the city to find work. As Ricky documented the daily life of this girl with his camera, she would talk from time to time about how she would do it.
Ricky’s not an anthropologist, he’s a filmmaker, but the intensely thoughtful way he discusses his subject matter reminds me of an academic. When I ask about filming, he waxes philosophical. When I ask about the village at Lugu Lake, he tells me first about its social structure.
“The Mosuo people are a matriarchal society,” Ricky tells me. This type of social organization, he explains, springs up in places on the edge of existence – where resources are scarce and communities have to band together to survive. Under these conditions, the luxury of private property isn’t an option.
Situated on the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau in western China’s Sichuan province, Lugu Lake fits this description. Here, winters are harsh and there is little arable land. The matriarch looks after an extended family of fifty or sixty, distributing resources with the goal of keeping everyone alive.
But recently things are changing in Lugu Lake. “Suddenly resources are guaranteed by a new thing called the road,” says Ricky. With new access to money and options, families have begun to split off, not in dispute, but to run their own small businesses. A way of life with seemingly no place in rapidly modernizing China, is slowly starting to fade.
It was this village that inspired Ricky’s feature length documentary project. But for Ricky, the path towards exploration was an unexpected stray from a typical suburban Californian kid’s road towards becoming a doctor or lawyer.
Ricky’s first introduction to Lugu Lake was on a bus in between towns that no one outside of Yunnan has ever heard of. Ricky ended up sitting next to a boy who was returning home from a job in the big city. The boy was looking to get married but the girls from the city weren’t interested and the girls in Lugu Lake had no understanding of the world that he now knew existed. He had no way forward and no way back.
Stories like this illustrate the dynamics of a rapidly globalizing China. It was the force that pulled Ricky off the wide, paved road toward law school and onto rocky side paths, his camera in tow.
Ricky has now shot hundreds of hours of film, and spent months in Lugu Lake documenting its residents. His film reel has important moments like meetings with a village matriarch, and a man’s spiritual pilgrimage to a holy mountain. But it is also a record of the many daily moments of a young girl planning a life-changing move.
This film has tested Ricky in many ways. Every day is a decision to stay on the unkempt path and not make a dash back to that wide, paved road. You feel the drive of those daily decisions when you talk to Ricky. It’s a kind of steady, persistent energy that runs strong beneath the surface of his mild temperament. It’s this kind of quality that pushes an explorer-filmmaker to follow their subjects through hell or high water, but also let them walk their own life’s course, even when it’s not according to plan.
The focal point of Ricky’s film – the young girl – has now decided to get married and stay put, placing a strain on the story arch of the film. It means that the project could go on for years longer before it reaches the right ending point.
But Ricky’s doesn’t seem concerned. He says he’ll recognize the moment when it’s finished. And until then, he will continue to film and explore and document. For him, exploration is not about reaching the finish line; it’s about sharing what he discovers with a world that might have otherwise forever forgotten Lugu Lake.
A conversation with 2014 WildChina Explorer, Ricky Qi.
Begin your own exploration journey with the WildChina Explorer Grant. Applications for this year’s grant are now open. Visit explorergrant.wildchina.com to apply.