Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker, Zijian Mu (GSAS '13) Talks About His Film, One Child

Zijian Mu (GSAS '13) recently won a Student Academy Award for his documentary film, One Child, which follows the journey of three families from Beichuan, China (the city that suffered the most from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake), as they try to restore a sense of normalcy and struggle to move past the loss of their children.

What did you study at NYU? Were there any professors who had an impact on you and your interest in documentary filmmaking? 

I went to the News and Documentary program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and there are four professors who have had a profound influence on my interest in documentary filmmaking:

• Prof. Marcia Rock, the director of the program who was kind enough to offer me scholarships without which I probably wouldn't have gotten into documentary. NYU was the most expensive school on my graduate school application list and News and Documentary was the only program on that list that concentrated on documentary filmmaking. I studied economics in college in China, and I was almost a blank piece of paper in terms of journalism experience. It was my luck that Prof. Rock loved my proposal about making a documentary about the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, and kept encouraging me to pursue a film about my hometown, which was destroyed by this earthquake. She has faith in me and showed it to me clearly.

• Prof. Shimon Dotan, who teaches Political Cinema, a course about how to look at “the others” in conflicts. His course mainly covers the conflict in the Middle East, which was an unfamiliar topic for me and thus quite an eyeopener. There were always serious discussions in his class that demonstrated the power of multiperspectivity and how to look at things in different ways.

• Prof. Adrian Mihai. He is the most accessible professor who cares about and loves spending time with his students. I learned more about the craft of filmmaking from him than anyone else.

• Prof. Aviva Slesin, an Academy Award-winner and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In each of her classes “Master Class in Documentary: Director's Series” (at Tisch), she brought one working and accomplished documentary filmmaker to class, to screen his/her latest work, sometimes a work-in-progress documentary, and the students were able to provide feedback. In her class I got to know the most active and influential documentary filmmakers in this country. Prof. Slesin loves her students and always finds ways to help them. She said ultimately if the students can’t achieve more than their teachers, the teachers fail. She is a very fair person and has had a great influence on me.

How did the idea for this film come about? 

This is a documentary about my hometown and people I know. The 2008 Sichuan Earthquake claimed close to 90,000 lives and my hometown Beichuan is the most devastated town. It lost more than half of its population, including many of my family members and friends. Soldiers, doctors, volunteers and all other kinds of disaster relief effort poured into my hometown, which was life-saving. After the earthquake, the Chinese government spent billions of dollars rebuilding the destroyed towns, and people were able to move into new buildings and new communities to start anew. However, years after the disaster, many families were not able to walk out of the tragedy because their childless state of living. On the streets of New Beichuan, a totally new town was built from scratch. The parents who were able to give birth to another child after losing one, showed off their babies and made quite a happy scene, while the ones not able to do so remained silence and dared not to get out of their apartment for fear of being reminded about their deceased child. There were numerous reports about the recovery of the people in the Earthquake but many lacked a local perspective and missed the issue about how China’s one-child policy has shaped the lives of the parents. So I decided to make a documentary about that.

How did you find the three families that you follow in the film and were they hesitant to agree to let you film them? 

They are all my family friends, though not closely tied to my family. Beichuan is a small town and everybody knows about everybody. I found the subjects in my film through referrals. The three families knew my parents and grandparents quite well. In one of the families (Jiang and Fu's), I found out during filming that Mr. Jiang’s mother, now in her 70s, was the landlord of my grandparents when they first moved to Beichuan during the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Jiang’s mother helped my grandparents to settle down and generously collected very little rent. I was very surprised to discover that tie and that relationship helped the subjects open up to me during my filming. It was difficult in the beginning and took about one month to be fully accepted by the families. Having a camera around in their daily life was not an easy thing to adjust to or even understand. I was trying to be a “fly on the wall,” and in the beginning, I was constantly holding the camera but never turned it on. It was a process for us to know each other in many aspects, and that took quite some time.

The subject of your film is a heartbreaking one, what lessons do you feel you learned from spending time with these families, and what do you hope audiences will take away from the film? 

For myself, it’s a journey to truly understand my hometown people. I am one of them. I suffered the loss of family members due to the earthquake, but in a sense I was luckier because I had the opportunity to study abroad and get away from seeing the devastation everyday. Over the course of four months (May to Sept, 2012) I lived with each of the three families – I stayed at their apartments, I ate with them and I saw and heard what their daily conversations were. For me it was an education of how disasters change the core of families, how people live with loss and vulnerability, and where and how they find hope in life. I hope that the people who watch the film will better understand the perplexities and hardship involved in recovering from extreme tragedy. I hope people with the power to change the one-child policy in China will get access to the perspective of the very victims of the policy and find a more reasonable approach to address the issue. On another level, my goal is to show that even though this is a specific dilemma caused by particular policy in China, the values of family and love are universal.

One Child has won the 2013 Sidney Gross Memorial Prize for Investigative Journalism and recently, a 2014 Student Academy Award. What was it like winning these awards for your first documentary? 

It is incredibly rewarding. The recognition of the awards themselves have some real influence, allowing more people to see the film and connect with people like the ones in my film. I learned through making this documentary that it is quite a difficult path as a full-time independent documentary filmmaker - there is very limited funding, market and audience. With all the adversities down the road, the awards are wonderful because they showed that the film is appreciated, and it will have impact on people.

Are you currently working on any other films or have an idea of what you would like to do next? 

I will be working on a film(s) about young Chinese coming and living in the US, the new generation are very different from the previous ones. They don’t have all the historical burdens and horrible memories that their parents went through, many of those born born in the 90's are neither typical traditional Chinese or overwhelmingly westernized, they are culturally and ideologically “in-betweeners.” I think they will be the major force to change China in the next 20 years, so it will be quite interesting to see what and how they think and what they will do.

This is always a tough question, but can you give us one or two Documentary films that are at the top of your favorite list? 

Grizzly Man, Director: Werner Herzog

Last Train Home, Director: Lixin Fan

The Cats of Mirikitani, Director: Linda Hattendorf

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