Kay Kay is the face of modern day China, a bright, educated and ambitious 20 year old living in the booming southern city of Guangzhou. She represents a new generation of middle class Chinese 'only' children, benefiting from China's economic growth as well as the single-minded dedication of her factory-worker parents.

This film was first broadcast in 2012 as part of a bigger project called "Growing Up Global" that has followed ten children, now young adults, from their birth in 1992, mirroring the changes in peoples' lives during this period of globalisation. "The Girl from Guangzhou" followed Kay Kay for her whole life, filming with her and her family at regular intervals since her birth in 1992. It gives a rare, personal narrative to the decades of transformation of China during the first 20 years of her lifetime.

From an innocent childhood and school days through to her university life where she struggles to get to grips with China's economic imperatives in the face of environmental issues, Kay Kay is a charming, engaging guide to modern China, its people and the miracle of the country's economic growth during those two decades.

Al Jazeera recently spoke with the filmmaker behind the film, Bruno Sorrentino, about his experience documenting Kay Kay's life and the lives of the other children in the project.

Al Jazeera: You've spent over two decades documenting Kay Kay's life - that's quite a commitment. How did it all start?

Bruno Sorrentino: It's not that I spent 20 years just doing that. Kay Kay is one of a dozen babies that we started filming in 1992, all around the world. The way that it has worked is every couple of years, we do an around the world trip, stopping at each location, then filming. Two years later we do the same thing again.

Al Jazeera: Kay Kay is such an engaging character. How did you choose the family?

Sorrentino: Well you cant really choose the baby because babies dont talk so we had to choose the parents. Kay Kay's parents seemed to be very much the model of China's vision, the one-child family, living in a city with was emblematic of the new industrial revolution which was just then gearing up. 

Usually when you make a documentary, you have just a few months, usually even just a few weeks to spend with the people you film with. When it's over, after 20 or 25 years in this case, it becomes sort of like a family relationship. It's very privileged. Films are like a canned version of reality, a condensed story, and if you film across a long span of time, different things become apparent. The camera sees different things that you would have never seen across a period of a few weeks. 

Al Jazeera: Did the camera change Kay Kay or her family dynamic in any way?

Sorrentino: I dont believe it did. The key thing with Kay Kay and all the other people that I filmed, is the kind of relationship you form with them. If you dont speak the language, the person that's going to be really important is the translator. As a matter of principle, I've always spent a good amount of time with the translator, really making sure we are on the same page. They are the person the child is also interacting with. I'm always there but that presence is vital. 

Al Jazeera: We saw things change extraordinarily in Guangzhou over 20 years. Would you say the changes you saw were mirrored across China over the two decades?

Sorrentino: Yes; and I think at that time in China when we started filming, everybody knew that this would be happening. A universal thing with parents is they always want opportunities for their children that they never had themselves as they grew up and Kay Kay's parents were no different. 

In contrast to some of the other countries that I've been filming, they have seen that change happen and witness their children get those chances - to go to university, to get the chance at a professional career that they particularly wanted. 

Al Jazeera: What is Kay Kay up to now?

Sorrentino: She got her dream job of working in a bank. She wanted to go to university, that was her big wish, and she was interested in designing wedding dresses, too.

She met the love of her life after university and is now married. They have two, not one, children and she doesn't really need to work. They have enough money to be able not to work and for her to concentrate on the children if she wants to. 

Al Jazeera: Do you feel that Kay Kay's upbringing in a one-child policy environment has affected the person she has become today?

Sorrentino: When I first met Kay Kay's parents in 1992, they could see their country was on the road to prosperity, and that whatever hardships they might have to endure along the way, it would all be for the benefit of the one child they were allowed to have under their country's one-child policy.

One effect of that was a kind of funneling down of love and attention to their one and only child, with cousins taking the nearest available place to siblings. With the growing new-found wealth and only the one child to spend it on came what became known as the 'generation of little emperors'. But far from the stereotypical 'spoilt brat' sometimes associated in the West with an only child, Kay Kay has retained all the self-confidence we saw in her early years.

However, something else has also grown in her: during the many times I was with them, I always sensed that she and her parents shared a loving relationship, one in which her individuality was also respected - I don't know if that's something that might not have been so clear had there been other siblings. As for the difficult conditions they endured as their city was literally being rebuilt, I felt there was a kind of parallel sense that they - everyone - all had a stake in the building of a better place for their children.

Al Jazeera: What does Kay Kay make of the project and has she seen her story as told by you?

Sorrentino: Kay Kay has seen the film and loved it. Filming with her was always a huge amount of fun and she would look forward to our filming trips. It is a rare privilege for a filmmaker to have the benefit of lifelong filming relationships, such as these [with Kay Kay and the rest of the children]. The film was shown on a big outdoor screen during the Guangzhou film festival, where it garnered a lot of publicity, and Kay Kay enjoyed the attention. 

Al Jazeera: What is the one main similarity and the one standout difference between the life stories you tracked?

Sorrentino: All the parents we filmed, from Papua New Guinea to India,  Africa and the Americas to the Arctic, wanted their children to have the things, the education and the chances that they never had. That goes for the richest as well as the poorest. Except, in the case of Erodo , the Turkana herding boy in the north of Kenya, where there was a clash of worlds.  

Erodo's father Christopher wanted his son to be a nomad, and a cattle herder like him. What use was school when cattle are everything? The exchanges of cattle, along with the prestige that accompanies the marriages of your children, are irresistible to a herding man. But Erodo's mother Esther no longer saw a future in nomadism, and wanted something better for her son: she wanted him to have an education.

So she left her husband's way of life to farm a small plot of land from where she could send her son to school. To me the split between the different points of view of Erodo's mother and his father represent the standout difference. So Erodo's life has in part been a tussle between his father's hanging on to the old ways of nomadism and his mother's vision of a settled future for her boy.

Al Jazeera: Is any one of the children's stories the most meaningful or profound to you, and why? 

Sorrentino: Panjy, the girl in southern India who's life I also followed, had wanted to be a doctor and in her words, 'treat people for free'. But her dream was not fulfilled - she was taken out of school at an early age, to feed the family. Her country provides free schooling to every child up to the age of 16, but in some places attitudes still mitigate against girls. The last time I saw her, she said the very things her mother had said when I met her in 1992; when I have a baby, "I'll want her/him to have all the things I never had when I was a child".

The world has changed hugely since the year of their births in 1992. It was the year of the first UN Earth Summit Agreements in Rio, and also the start of this current era of globalisation. Many have become richer, but those who remained poor such as Panjy and Rosemary in Brazil, have in terms of their hopes and dreams 'skipped' a generation.

Among the poor in a township in South Africa, was Visumzi, one of two children in that country who's lives I was also filming. He was murdered one night when he was just 16 in a senseless act by a drunk. But this too was a story of poverty. His mother, Mavis had to leave him alone in order to work as a maid in the nearest town. Through the lifelong act of regularly returning to film, and in the absence of other male figures in the family, Visumzi had looked to me as a kind of father figure. I certainly felt a strong emotional bond, and even now cannot begin to describe the pain I feel for this boy and his mother.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Source: Al Jazeera