During an extended stay with the Moso people, a small ethnic group living in China’s Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces, Joseph Rock carefully detailed his observations for an early issue of National Geographic magazine. The year was 1929.
“Here people live and die without the slightest knowledge of the outside world,” the traveler and botanist wrote. “How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems! Or, are they happier for it?”
Eighty-five years later, the outside world has finally begun to infiltrate this quiet corner of civilization. What this means for the Moso people is the subject of a documentary currently in production, funded through a National Geographic Young Explorers grant secured by director Ricky Qi.
USC Dornsife alumnus Ankur Poseria, who in 2009 earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations, is executive producer on the film, which has the working title Under One Roof. The crew also includes Qi; cinematographer Daniel Zhao, a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts; and producers Michael Tang and Nancy Wu, the latter who earned her master’s at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Poseria, Qi and Zhao traveled to the Himalayan foothills for three months in 2013 to film interviews with Moso villagers.
The team arrived in Beijing last March, embarked cross-country and eventually reached the Tibetan Plateau. Joined by sociocultural anthropologist and Fulbright scholar Colleen O’Connor, they spent most of their time staying with local residents in Lige (pronounced “lee-guh”), a small village nestled at the foot of Gemu Mountain on the shore of snow trout-filled Lugu Lake.
With a stunning visual backdrop, they are telling the stories of the Moso people, who number approximately 40,000. But first the team had to gain their trust.
“We would go out every day, talking to locals, getting involved in things that they were doing,” said Poseria. “Coming into the project, we brought a lot of production gear with us. But what we were finding is that when we sat people down for an interview, threw up lights and pointed multiple cameras and microphones at them, they became uncomfortable and it was hard to connect.
“Finally we decided to just use the Canon EOS C300 — a versatile, cinematic-grade hand-held camera — and go out and talk to people. And that’s when their world really opened up to us. That’s when we started to hear about the gambling and alcoholism behind closed doors, people’s personal relationships and how they were playing out, opinions on the rest of China and if they had desires for anything modern, whether communication or more money. That was a huge breakthrough.”
The team captured more than 20 interviews on film, representing a wide cross-section of Moso residents from around the lake, and are weaving the stories into a series of interconnected vignettes. Through the interviews, it became clear that many traditional aspects of Moso culture are receding due to the influence of modern culture and the rise of tourism.
In the mid-90s, the Lugu Lake Development Bureau surveyed the lake and deemed it a prime location for developing tourism. Ten years ago a highway was paved, tourists began to arrive and the long-insulated Moso villagers came face-to-face with the modern world. According to Qi, this has brought improvements in communication, sanitation, nutrition and ease of life for many; but it has also brought a newfound concern for money and an ideology that favors personal gain over communal growth.
In terms of the language barrier, Poseria had three years of Mandarin Chinese language study under his belt from his USC Dornsife days. Qi and Zhao speak the language fluently.
“We built genuine friendships with many of the villagers in Lige, and this eventually led to candid and powerful interviews seldom given to outsiders,” Qi said.
“In fact, we had the honor of being invited to witness and film the entire life cycle in Moso tradition, something I don’t think any other professional filmmaker in the region has done so far,” Poseria added.
One subject interviewed was a former lama who gave up a life of religious solitude and now operates the largest inn and barbeque in Lige. Also interviewed were an entrepreneurial Moso woman who became the first female village chief in the history of her people, and a Han Chinese woman who abandoned a life of comfort in the city to move to the mountains with a Moso man.
One unique aspect of the matriarchal Moso culture is their practice of the “walking marriage.” In this system, a woman may invite a man to join her in her hut for a “sweet night,” but he is obliged to depart by sunrise. There is no binding marriage contract, and if a child is born it is raised solely by the woman’s family.
However, this tradition has also become a cornerstone of the tourism industry’s strategy to lure a certain kind of visitor to the area by sensationalizing the practice. This is particularly evident in the Moso live dance shows, where it is the centerpiece of some very sensual choreography.
Under One Roof has about a year of filming left to allow the team to finish a few storylines and cover several of the region’s big festivals.
Following graduation from USC, Poseria and Zhao teamed up with producers Marc Liu and Willis Chung and started a production company, Third Estate Media, that undertook various commercial and music video-based production work. Later, Poseria took a job with Voltage Pictures, a foreign sales and film production company, followed by a stint working in Content Strategy for Walt Disney Online.
More recently, he recalled being in Washington, D.C., and visiting the National Geographic headquarters for a film festival.
“One film in particular about an Algerian music group, El Gusto, really affected me. I thought to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be incredible to do this for a living, to tell stories like this?’ Then a month later I got the call.”
The call came from his old friend, Qi.
“Hey, I got this National Geographic grant to do a film in China, how would you like to be my producer?” he asked Poseria.
“I turned in my notice at work the next day, and off I went!”
Poseria is a photographer, a passion he indulged thoroughly during his travels in China. The Ohio native also holds the distinction of participating as an athlete in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. A swimmer, he competed in the 100-meter butterfly event. Currently, he is co-producing an episodic drama, PATRIOTS, with fellow USC Dornsife alumnus Andrew Schneider ‘10 and producing commercials for California’s burgeoning technology sector.
Poseria recalled some of his formative experiences in USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations.
“In IR, we constantly analyzed the media’s portrayal of international politics, culture and news. I considered going into diplomacy or working in public service or the U.S. Department of State, but the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be involved with the media side of the conversation. That’s essentially when I made the decision to go into international filmmaking.”
He cited Doug Becker, assistant professor (teaching) of international relations, as among those teachers who influenced him most. Becker, he said, had vast knowledge of international policy and film. In his classes, Poseria learned about how NGOs and the United Nations were being portrayed in the media, and what was actually happening behind the curtains.
“Doug really taught me about analysis and digging a little deeper below the surface. I learned to connect the dots.”
These are lessons being put to use now as Poseria works to understand and represent the Moso people through their own words.