Montreal filmmaker Yung Chang makes his debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday with his documentary film Up the Yangtze.

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Up the Yangtze mourns the passing of gorgeous landscapes, but also the loss of a way of life for poor Chinese families. ((Jonathan Chang/EyeSteelFilm))

Chang says he started out to make a film about a rather "surreal trip" up the Yangtze River in China in the months before the Three Gorges Dam flooded whole Chinese communities and wiped out an ancient landscape.

"Through the course of making the film, it became something more than that," Chang told CBC's cultural affairs show Q.

"It turned out that below decks on this cruise ship were kids who were directly from the Three gorges region, whose families were preparing to be relocated by the flooding of the Three Gorges."

The documentary Chang ended up making ends up telling a story of the human costs of progress in a country in the throes of rapid change.

"I went through journey trying to figure out how to display this country that is absolutely fascinating and filled with real human stories and people that are being washed up, washed away with change," he said.

The heart of the film is the story of Yu Shui, 16, one of three children of a farmer who is about to lose his land, who takes a job on the cruise ship to support her family.

"She begins as this very naive countryside girl, and eventually there is a slow transformation where she boards the ship and they go through this boot camp process where you have to train and learn English," Chang said.

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The crew on the boat included children of families who were losing their homes and land to flooding. ((NFB/Yung Chang))

Yu Shui has to call herself by the English name of Cindy, she begins to adopt western values and understand the ways of capitalism as she travels further and further from home.

In many ways it's not a bad thing, Yang said, but there is still a sense of loss of the old landscapes and culture of China.

"Who can deny the idea that they are beginning a better life," he said. "Her father makes only $200 Cdn a year and that's what Yu Shui makes on the boat in a month."

Chang explored this idea with his grandfather, a former resident of Beijing now living in Taiwan, who went with him on the trip.

His grandfather lends a note of nostalgia, singing the traditional Boat Song for the documentary.

Chang said he tries to capture the contrast between the Western experience of tourists riding the cruise ship and the Chinese below.

"The cruise ship was almost like a fish bowl — it contained everything," he said. "The cruise ship became this kind of microcosm — above decks were the Western tourists and below decks were the crew workers looking above and trying to climb that ladder to join the tourists eventually."

The film is a first feature-length documentary for Chang, whose earlier projects include Earth to Mouth, about migrant farm labour and food production.

Up the Yangtze, a co-production of the NFB, EyeSteelFilm and CBC Newsworld/SRC, is one of several Canadian documentaries showing at the Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday.

The others include  Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma, set in Africa,  and Women of Brukman, set in Brazil.

The Sundance Film Festival, the U.S.'s most important festival of independent film, runs in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 17 to 27.