Walking across the river: An adventure of documentary director Nanfu Wang

Yuhong Pang
Nov 14, 2018 · 6 min read
Nanfu Wang

There has been a classic fable in the textbook for Chinese primary schoolers for half a century.

“One day, a colt took a bag of wheat to the mill. He was stopped by a river in front of him and couldn’t decide whether he could cross it…”

Millions of young children listen to it, read about it, play it but not everyone engraves it into the heart and remembers it as clearly as Nanfu Wang, a Chinese documentary filmmaker, who recounts the story to me.

Looking around, the little colt saw a cow grazing nearby. He asked, “Aunt Cow, could you tell me if I can cross the river?” The cow told him that the river was only knee high. However, a squirrel jumped down from a tree and shouted, “Colt, stop! You’ll drown! One of my friends drowned just yesterday in the river.”

Not knowing what to do, the colt went home to ask his mom.

There are thousands of times in her own life, when Wang has felt like that perplexed horse, standing by the side of the river, dithering. However, she had no one to ask for directions after her father, the person who first told her this story, passed away when she was 12 years old. Her life took a different track since then when she had to drop out of high school at 16 because of the family’s financial burden.

“I felt stuck and worried that I would never be able to see the world,” she recalls. But the desire to see a bigger world motivated her to pass the self-taught exam to get a bachelor’s equivalency degree. She then used that certificate to apply to graduate school in 2007 and got accepted with a full scholarship to study English literature at Shanghai University.

After graduation, she stayed in school and worked in the Office of Academic Affairs for a while. A job like this is often considered a good choice for women in China, stable and carefree. But Wang got bored with the repetitive daily work very soon. Witnessing her colleagues who had stayed in the same positions for more than a decade, still doing the same work, she got scared by imagining herself to be one of them in the future.

“What do I want? Which job should I choose? Should I go to the U.S. or not? “These were questions hanging over her mind after she decided to leave the job and do something different. At that time, she didn’t know the answer, just like two years later when she went back to China to shoot her first film Hooligan Sparrow, she had no idea what was waiting ahead for her.

Hooligan Sparrow

Growing up in a rural village, she understood poverty from a very young age. The death of her father made her realize many problems that root deeply in the society, from the lack of medical services to the flaws of the education system. “I find myself always caring about people living at the bottom of our society and my experience enables me to truly sympathize with them,” Wang said.

She chose the rights of Chinese sex workers as her original story and returned to China to meet her main character, Ye Haiyan, a courageous women’s rights activist, who once lived the illegal life of a sex worker, distributing free condoms to raise awareness for HIV prevention. But Ye took her on a journey that she never expected. A group of protesters, including Ye, went to Hainan province to address a crime that happened in a local primary school, where the school principal was charged with raping six young girls. Then the protest turned into a fight against China’s government and Ye was forced to flee across the country with her daughter.

Marcia Rock, the professor at NYU News and Documentary program says she was stunned by Wang’s footage when she first saw it. “The first thing she showed to us was the time she was running upstairs when she was followed by the police,” she recalled. “My first impression was that she was threatened but she had her eye on camera even in the most stressful situation.”

Professor Rock remembered that Wang was different than other students even at the beginning. “She had her camera with her every class. She was always working. She was very enthusiastic and dedicated in a way most students are not.”

Three years later, Wang turned her short student film into a full-length documentary, which won 10 awards in worldwide film festivals and 5 nominations in 2016. Many film critics acclaimed her courage to document the dangerous human rights protest under massive surveillance. At that time, however, she didn’t realize at first how hostile the situation would be when she started shooting them along the trip.

“I felt so shocked and outraged by what I saw and experienced,” she said. Two weeks later, she started to double copy her footage and used all kinds of devices to document their conflicts with the government, including phone tape, recorder and a pair of eyeglasses with a built-in camera.

Besides the thrilling story itself, the success of this film also lies in her creative editing and storytelling. Matt Fagerholm, an assistant editor at RogerEbert.com, was struck by the scene in Hooligan Sparrow where the audiences hear the audio of Ye Haiyan being beaten by police in her home prior to her arrest, as subtitles materialize over the image of water rushing past the camera. The water became of visual metaphor of Wang’s complex feelings at the moment.

“I was on a boat to meet her when I got this news,” Wang recalled. “So, I saw the waves and felt it best represented my feelings at that time. I want the audience to feel the same anger and sadness as I did on the ground.”

As the advisor of Hooligan Sparrow, Rock was also impressed by her deep thinking into the film. “When she cut the opening of Hooligan Sparrow, she watched 100 films to get an idea of what she wanted to do to make the opening work,” Rock said. “And she’s able to go from straightforward documentary filmmaking to make it more cinematic. The opening of Hooligan Sparrow is a good example of that, really working with the medium in a creative way.”

Production photo from I Am Another You

Although she didn’t want to include herself as a character in the film, Wang eventually becomes the narrator and explorer of both Hooligan Sparrow and I Am Another You, as she takes the audience on an adventure with her. However, a narration like this also raises questions to the theme of Hooligan Sparrow, as Katie Walsh, a film critic for IndieWire, said: “Wang has to overly rely on her own voiceover to fully articulate some of the intricacies of the story, and sometimes the focus of the film gets lost — is it about the specific event in Hainan or Sparrow’s biography?”

Even though Hooligan Sparrow is not perfect, Wang considers it as her own child. She rarely watches her own film, but sometimes when she encounters it, the two minutes on the screen will remind her of that Chinese fable about the colt.

“When the colt went back to his mother,” Wang told me on the phone, “his mother said, my child, don’t always listen to others. You’d better go and try yourself. Then you’ll know what to do.”

Twenty years have passed since she first heard this story from her father. Wang has become a woman director with enthusiasm and perseverance. She names her company Little Horse Crossing The River.

“Every time I stand at the crossroads, different people will give me different suggestions,” she said. “But I have to make my own decision at the end.”

Columbia Journalism School 18'; reporter; visual storyteller; city flaneur

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