Distributor:  Global Environmental Justice
Length:  147 minutes
Date:  2005
Genre:  Expository
Language:  Mandarin / English subtitles
Color/BW:  Color


Curator imageJason A.Carbine, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Whittier College

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Before the Flood I

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Part I. The residents of the ancient Chinese cities of Fengjie clash with officials forcing them to evacuate their homes -- along with millions of other residents -- to make way for the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

Before the Flood I

These films were selected by Jason Carbine, C. Milo Connick Chair of Religious Studies Associate Professor Department of Religious Studies, Whittier College

Why I selected these films
I chose these films in part because they resonate with other documentaries in this collection --Waking the Green Tiger, Dams, Drugs and Democracy, and Yindabad -- that examine environmental, social, and political issues related to hydroelectric power development and management, worldwide.

I also selected the films because they are particularly useful for any kind of interdisciplinary courses in Asian Studies and in other fields that examine the moral economies of water and water management, as seen from a different local and global perspectives, including comparative social ethics. These films provide an intimate and intense exploration of the tensions, fears, anxieties, and conflicts that arise when people are displaced for development purposes.

Teacher's guide
Please see the combined guide for both films for maps and background information and suggested subjects, questions and activities.

Synopsis Part I
A landmark documentary following the residents of the historic city of Fengjie as they clash with the officials, forcing them to evacuate their homes to make way for the world’s largest dam. China’s Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam built on earth, has displaced millions of local residents whose towns and villages have been flooded. Fengjie, a city that has thrived along the Yangtze River for a thousand years, has only a few months left before it is completely submerged in water. Its citizens contend with administrators and each other over the residences in “New Fengjie,” which are allocated via lottery and are far smaller than the homes they’ve worked a lifetime to build. Communist collectivism gives way to individual ruthlessness while the community battles furiously against bureaucratic mismanagement.

Shot over the course of two years, Before the Flood is a breathtaking achievement in verité-style documentary filmmaking. Directors Yan Yu and Li Yifan observe the death of a city, from streets teeming with life to a ghost town echoing with the sound of sledgehammers. A disaster movie rooted in reality, Before the Flood has won awards around the world and inspired Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, also shot in Fengjie. This profound film shows the human effects of one of history’s grandest social engineering projects that reflect the loss of both home and heritage.

Environmental Justice Focus
This film documents interrelations between environmental engineering and bureaucratic mismanagement, dehumanization, and displacement. Mr. Haiyu Xiang, a hostel owner, symbolizes the plight of many, as he and others struggle against the forces of large-scale water and power management in China.

Download the teacher's guide for Before the Flood I and Before the Flood II (PDF)

Before the Flood Teacher Guide


Before The Flood I




 Kuimen Gorge —  We see a wide rocky valley. This film is about the effect of the Three Gorges Dam Project on towns and villages along the Yangtze River.


2002 Fengjie County - River / boats / town. A wedding party walks through a field.


Ferry docking /  porters rush to ferry / the push and shove.


 Inside boat they carry fish in blue barrels. Crowding and pushing


Carry various heavy items off the boat. Up steep stairs —


 —looking down on the harbour we see how far they have travelled.


Porters run through a market, we follow into a large building/market.


Continue following as they walk a great distance. The stop and dump fish in to vat. A newlywed couple gets photographed in market.


Back on boat the porters scramble for jobs. An angry woman confronts a porter. They yell at each other.


Another porter carries huge bundles on a pole across his shoulders. We are at the Xiang Family Hostel. The porters eat meals out of tin boxes.


The porters eat and chat about one of them that had his buckets confiscated.


The hostel owner goes over is horoscope.


We are at the Indo Gate an Ancient City Wall. Many shots of vendors on the streets. Inside a church. A man plays an organ badly a woman cries at the gate.


One of the pastors sits and opens her mail. She complains about people being late for a meeting to two nearby women


The pastor complains about always getting the morning shifts.


She complains about someone being late.  The man shows up. He is an assistant pastor.


The people come in and give excuses about being late. The meeting starts


Some higher up church organization want money that they don’t have. Discuss a way to protect their funds - two sets of books?


 Someone resists the idea of two sets of books. Other insists they don’t have the money to cover the request.


Continue the above discussion Wondering if anyone there would leak the figure that they actually have.


There is a long silence.  Title: Fengjie Protestant Church. Street scenes. People examine publicly posted compensation tables for homes.


Yongan District Gov Offices. A man objects to gov officials entering his house


In an office a man is denied compensation for his house by the Deputy Mayor.  The mayor explains the system —- why he can’t get compensation.


The residents argue with the Deputy Mayor and berate him. A women who seems to be in charge takes over the government side of the issue.


They continue to argue how policy should be determined.  They berate each other for being out of line.


The Deputy Mayor pleads for their co-operation. Says the man built his house illegally after the the building ban took effect.


the man accepts that he can’t get compensation but asks if there might be some in the future.  Mayor does not know


Others continue arguing their cases. The Deputy Mayor clears up some rumours that are circulating. Berates them for spreading rumours.


More arguing about compensation and policy.


TITLE: Three Gorges Dam Stage two flood line 146.7 meters.  We see farm land  and the city in background. Jiaochang Village. Farmers work in felids.


Children in narrow streets. A couple worries about money and the relocation.  Residents attend a meeting


Continue at the meeting. A man reads from a policy document. They discuss gov space allotment sizes.


They say that the city folks are getting the best houses and they will get the worst. They discuss the unfairness of it and lack of compensation.


The continue to discuss details of how badly they are getting screwed. They warn each other against going to the housing lottery.


We are at the housing lottery. Various shots of people. A song plays in the B/G.  Almost no residents have shown up.


Many empty chairs.  The officials wait.


An official says the low attendance might be because of the rain.


He says that if the ones that showed up don’t like their house they can exchange it for one of the houses of the those that didn’t bother to show up.


A few straggles enter the auditorium. The small crowd waits, some smoke


 The deputy mayor speaks explaining the new scheme.


The lottery proceeds. Many people crowd near the back of the room.


The mayor begins calling names. The person called is not in attendance.


Officials try and get one man to draw and he refuses. They call another name


One man finally draws. People argue and swear at each other.


A women draws. There are now more people. They keep calling names. Nobody answers.


Night time.  We are looking at boats on the river. Inside the hostel men play cards. They complain about taxes


They attend to small chores and tasks. They get ready for bed. Many in one room.


They chat and laugh as they get ready for bed. Morning - on the street with their blue barrels.


The hostel owner checks his luck for the day. His lucky direction is south.


He asks his wife(?)for change for the bus. She is annoyed with him.


He continues to try to perused her as she walks into the next room.  She comes back and gives him five yuan.


He goes to a house and talks to the people there about renting a house. They say not it’s being torn down.


He walks through a slum looking area. He asks for a rental house.


Now he is on a bus. He arrives at the newly constructed city of Fengjie. Walks up huge set of stairs


Looks at big tent like structure under an enormous bridge


Makes his way down a steep embankment.


Continues to make his way down, walks to edge of cliff.


Now far below us.  He walks under the bridge and disappears






The Hostel owner is back at home. Says he almost fell the other day. His wife talks, says he better not fall or get sick.


He says he is getting old. Talks about dying. She says better off falling then getting sick.


She berates him for his actions  says she will not help. She cries, he cries. Next day they watch tv.


He talk as if he is giving up, like his wife has. Says he does not have the ability or resources to keep fighting.


Two men take care of a garden. Very green plants


Long pan of river basin. We go to the church. The pastor cleans the pews / streets / outside city/ Title: February 2002


Very tight crowd of people on steps of a building. A police man gives orders that are ignored. A man wants a photo of himself.


There is about to be a demolition. People wait and watch. We see it go down from several angles.


Now we are in a house and see the same thing on a TV Screen. We hear the news commentary on the demolition.  An official says how well the relocation is going. Street scenes at night.


Morning Vegtable market 4:00 am. people buy, sell, weigh food. There is a wedding party being silly.  Men work on the rubble of the demolished building.


In a square a band plays a women sings. An argument breaks up in the crowd. hundreds of people play a game with tiles. 


Title July 2002: people work outdoors / river basin/ much demolition going on


People are moving their possessions by boat. A women shouts directions.


People work / the church publicly broadcasts the amounts the individuals have donated


A pastor says the church will spend the money wisely.


A group in the church counts money and takes names.


women talk about underground vs legal churches.  An older couple read a hymn book


A group of men are angry about the price of something. People leave the church / three people walk through the streets


Demolition workers swing sledge hammers. The porters hang around the kitchen of the hostel. Men talk about work and money.


They talk about how hard it is to move a safe for a bank. They talk about the  long hours and hard work.


They say it is a well paying but a difficult job but you get paid at the end of everyday. More workers demolishing buildings


Moving tucks make their way through the city. People complain about the size of their new allotments and houses


Some women hand out eviction notices. An old women complains that it is too soon that she has nowhere to go.


People squabble with government workers handing out eviction notices.


Men move furniture along busy streets on carts. As demotion continues there is more rubble everywhere. Kids sit on rubble.


 A boy watches a tv show. The hostel owner phones the relocation office  — there is no answer.


Men stack scrap metal from the demolition onto a cart.


They weigh the metal at a metal buyer. The church is being taken apart.  Men examine the structure and materials that make up the church.


the pastor ask about costs of demolition.  He is given a figure


Metal scavengers examines the metal around the church.  The church council votes on agreeing to a cost, there is some squabbling.


The discussion continues on who gets the demolition contract


More discussion on the particulars, and proper protocol, and payment


The meeting ends.  A man tries to take off the metal railing with a hammer the hammer breaks


It is raining people go to the river.  An official paints over a public notice - DEMOLISH


On old women yells at gov officials that she and her husband have no place to go . A women attacks the official, a fight breaks out.


We see that the city is now in near in ruins.  A barge moves on the river.


A man moves a box through the rubble strewn streets.


We see the deterioration of the city. There seem to be fewer people around. People sleep in the open.


An old man does a kind of walking tai chi on the concrete docks,  people sleep nearby.  A bulldozer works in the mud


A women rakes mud in what used to be a bedroom. The man tries phoning the relocation office again.


A man carries a bathtub through the streets on his shoulder. We are at the office or relocation committee. They deal with the hostel owner that wants compensation and was denied before.


They discuss the situation with the deputy mayor. The man gets on the phone with the deputy mayor.


He is told the matter is under further investigation, the deputy mayor hangs up on him. The man is very angry


They continue to discuss the matter. She tells him if he was to show more respect to the deputy mayor it might make matter better


He says that even if they gave him a home now he would not take it. He continues to rant against the mayor’s office


He promises not to bother the relocation committee agian. He leaves.  We are now on a busy street. A demolition and relocation sound truck blares messages. Construction crews are everywhere


We follow them down an alley.  A man on a balcony yells at an office about what is going to happen to the statues.


Women berate the official about broken promises by the goverment. the official says everyone has to make sacrifices. The residents say they want more money.


The residents continue arguing many points.  A couple argues about renting vs buying


They discuss possible places at the new sites that they can rent. They compare prices.


They worry about where they will get the money for the new house. They talk about borrowing.


They start getting angry at each other. The wife leave in a huff


The man helps his grandma to lay down…looks like she is an invalid.


He makes sure she is comfortable  We are looking at a slum - then up at the river.


On the docks a women yells for help moving her cargo. She berates some men for not doing their jobs. Several men set in place the gang plank


We are back with the relocation committee as they walk through the streets. They discuss which houses to tear down next.


Some gov officials are angry that the demolished is not proceeding on schedule. They put a lot of pressure on the local team to get people moved out.


The local relocation team says the whole neighbourhood is resisting the move. They continue arguing and making excuses.


They officials  walk around inspecting the neighbourhood.  the local team talks about how cooperative the residents have been. There is an argument in the half demolished church between the pastor and the assistant pastor.


 They blame each other for calling other contractors in. She calls him a two face liar. The church committee meets and she vents to them


there seems to be some sort of dispute with the demolition contractor. The contractor recounts the circumstances of the deal.


The committee listens to him. The pastor says he never actually gave the man the contract.


The contractor begins to take offence,  claims he is being disrespected. The pastor says they never gave him the contact just the right to bid on it.


The contractor has his long winded say, is vaguely threatening.


He continues to berate and threaten the assistant pastor and his team.


He finally stops talking, we see shots of the members present. Nobody speaks


They finally agree on a contract. The church will pay a token amount.


They discuss the contribution of the relocation office.


They go look at the work to be done. The matter appears to be settled.


Next day they begin packing up and taking the church apart


They pack up more stuff from the church and move it out on a truck. The truck drive away.


The entire city in near rubble now. Workers salvage metal


Men start removing electrical wire from above the streets / and water pipes from the ground.


A man struggles to bring pails of water up some stairs.


He carries it into the next room. Outside people line up to get water from a public tap.


On a boat moving on the river. Back in the city workers kick a scavenger out of their area. They take down walls with hammers and winches.


The church facade is razed. TITLE: The Xiang Family Hostel. It is just a shell of a building among other rubble. IDO GATE is the same


Back on boat. Men manually manoeuvre barges around.


City at night - no electricity, the only light is from cars and trucks head lights.  There is a bon fire.


Eating by candle light a man says it is finally time to leave the city. They talk about how their friends are fairing.


They turn in by candle light.


Day time. A man has collected many doors.  NOV 2002 . A building is blasted, come down. Many more are razed as well.


And yet more come crashing down.  Men sort through and stack bricks


We follow two men as they carry a barrel.  Turns out it is liquor they are selling. The place is a complete waste land. 


They walk and ask, nobody buys. END

"Before The Flood highlights problems in inland China's towns and villages around the Three Gorges Project and - from a broader perspective - the distress caused by abandoning homes and lives." - George Williamson, Journalist, Eye for Films


Wolfgang Staudte Prize, Berlin Film Festival Humanitarian Prize, Hong Kong Film Festival Grand Prize, Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Best Documentary Feature, Lisbon Int'l Documentary Film Festival International Competition, 2005 Cinema du Reel Film Festival


Main credits

Li, Yifan (film director)
Yan, Yu (film director)
Yan, Yu (cinematographer)

Other credits

Cameras: Yu Yan; editor: Fan Yu.

Distributor credits

Li Yi-fan and Yan Yu

Li Yi-fan and Yan Yu

Directors: Li Yi-fan, Yan Yu
Editors: Yu Yan
Cinematography: Yu Yan

Docuseek2 subjects

Environmental Justice
Asian Studies
Anthropology and Archaeology
Rivers and Lakes
Government Policy
Communication and Media Studies
Citizenship, Social Movements and Activism
Human Rights
Global / International Studies
Film and Video Studies
East Asia
Women's Studies

Distributor subjects

Asian Studies
Environmental Geography
Human Rights
Visual Anthropology


"Before the Flood", "Yan Mo", China, Three Gorges Dam, Fengjie, YAN Yu, LI Yifan,hydropower, hydroelectricity, "Before the Flood II" Gongtan, Icarus Films dGenerate Films, Yangtze River, oustees, displaced populations, Haiyu Xiang, Guizhen Yang, Chunjie Li, Dajun Li, Chaoyang Xiang, New Fengjie, Yangtze River, Three Georges Dam, Kuimen Gorge; "Before the Flood I"; Global Environmental Justice,women,gender,

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