Wang gave students a glimpse into her unique approach to documentary filmmaking
Over the course of her two-day visit to BYU, critically acclaimed documentarian Nanfu Wang guest lectured, answered student questions and provided feedback on two media arts documentary capstones. Wang is best known for her debut film “Hooligan Sparrow,” in which she followed activists in her home country of China, unwittingly drawing government attention and surveillance to herself in the process.
On Dec. 5, media arts students and faculty were invited to attend a special Q&A session with Wang hosted by professor Scott Christopherson’s documentary history class. Many of the attending students were members of the class and had already seen both “Hooligan Sparrow” and Wang’s second film, “I Am Another You,” in which she lived and traveled with an intentionally homeless drifter.
“Being able to talk to the person who created the content is just a really unique experience,” said class member Tim Rollins, who is emphasizing in directing and documentary. “Most of the people who have made the films we’ve seen in class are deceased or don’t have a connection with the school. It was really refreshing to be face-to-face with a filmmaker and talk to them about their content. As filmmakers ourselves studying this, you don’t only think about yourself as a viewer, but you think about what the experience was like for the person creating it.”
Wang got more than she bargained for when she set out to make “Hooligan Sparrow.” She faced harassment, including destroyed cameras and other intimidation tactics, and ultimately had to resort to hidden recording methods and smuggle her footage out of the country in order to complete the film.
Wang’s willingness to jump into a story headfirst and her ability to think on her feet have solidified her reputation as an authentic and committed filmmaker. “Authenticity and honesty, as brutal honesty as you can get, makes for a better film,” Wang advised students in the Q&A.
“Her stories come from impulse, like compulsion,” said Austin Davis, a media arts student emphasizing in post-production. “She didn’t say ‘we’re going to do this in this way, and we’re going to try to be as safe as possible.’ She just dove into it, and then realized the dangers as she was going through the project. That surprised me, because in my experience, everything is usually as planned out as possible. It’s obviously different to say ‘I was in the middle of making this film, and then the police started coming after me.’”
Throughout her journey alongside the activists, Wang became keenly aware of issues in China that she had never before understood or questioned. “Before that I was critical, but not to the extent that I am now,” she said. “The activist life was a complete unknown to me—to personally experience the surveillance of the country took things from the abstract to the tangible.”
Over the course of her career, Wang has found herself evaluating her feelings for her home country. When asked about her stance regarding her national identity in light of her complicated and difficult relationship with China, Wang replied, “We all love our country, but we were taught that the government is the country. We were taught that we shouldn’t criticize it—but they’re two different things. I still love China and my identity as a Chinese person. The system is imperfect, and I want to make it better. They are not contradictory.”
Wang’s third documentary, “One Child Nation,” will have its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The already emotional nature of the film’s subject material—China’s infamous policy for population control—was personalized for Wang by her own pregnancy and interviews with members of her family and village. The policy had been part of everyday life for her in China, but motherhood prompted her to dig deeper into the effects felt by a nation of parents.
Wang continues to assess the role of parenthood in her own life as she raises her son with her husband and begins her next film, which will be centered on a Cuban activist who died under suspicious circumstances. “I look up to filmmakers who have done it, who are moms,” said Wang. “I hope I can be an inspiration for my child, and he can be mine. He already is.”
As an increasingly prominent independent filmmaker, Wang’s influence reaches far beyond her own family. Though she does not necessarily view herself as an activist, Wang continues to find herself drawn to themes of injustice and freedom and motivated by the prospect of informing and helping others.
“Someone asked her what she was aiming to do with her films,” said media arts student Allyse Clegg. “That is a question I have as a filmmaker because sometimes this career can seem like it is more for my own interests than for anyone else. And maybe it is. But Nanfu reaffirmed what I was hoping about film; she said that she knows of a few specific instances where her films have opened minds and started discussions on sexual abuse in China and street life in America, and that is enough for her to keep doing what she is doing.”
Though much of her work in film has been tinged with fear and uncertainty for her life and her family and the heartbreak of her difficult subject material, Wang remains remarkably positive. Her determination to continue to find and tell stories and improve her abilities as a filmmaker resonated with the media arts students she addressed.
“I’ve loved film my whole life, but she didn’t really get introduced to it until she was around 26,” said Rollins. “She hadn’t even touched a camera before then. Knowing that she was able to do so much with so little exposure is really inspiring. One of the most encouraging things from hearing from her is just how accessible the medium is. We’re at a point now where the technology allows for so much; it’s really just up to you whether or not you want to create something. The only thing keeping us from telling the stories we want to tell is ourselves.”
“My emphasis is in documentary filmmaking so I tried to soak up everything she said, from shaping a story to being a mother and filmmaker at the same time,” said Clegg. “Nanfu came from a rural province and worked her way up to a master’s degree, and then another master’s degree, and then a third. She put herself in the middle of conflict between a powerful government and an activist. She lived on the streets for a month and slept on private property. She just had a kid while starting a new documentary project in a country that has her pinned. I’m not sure what isn’t inspiring about that.”
“I definitely want to work harder and aim higher than I was before,” she added.