Edited by Bianca Malcolm, Written by Keisha Martin
Many Ohio University students took the winter off to relax and catch up on some much-needed sleep. But our 1st-year MFA students took to documenting the lives of others instead. Two MFAs, Zeran Lei and Eve Zhao, returned home to China to shoot their documentaries. There, they would capture stories and characters on film and bring them back to the states to be edited and screened.
Lei’s documentary focused on her former student, Siyu, whom she had taught for two years. Now, Siyu is a third grader in a small town of Guangdong, China. Following around her former student, Lei traveled back and forth between the girl's school and home in order to objectively capture her life.
When given the documentary assignment, Lei immediately thought of her former student. “I recalled the old days in that ordinary town from time to time. Unexpectedly, I missed my students very much. While I looked back to what I had gone through, I discovered some colorful moments which I had missed. A thought about revisiting this place started to grow inside of my heart.”
Even though it looked like a daunting task, Lei took it on. “I began to wonder if I can show a corner of life there to various people. This idea for sure thrilled me. I knew it’s worth doing; so I did it.” One of the biggest challenges faced by many that want to film overseas is gear. Lei conquered this with the help of Ohio University Film Division Director Steve Ross. Lei stated, “The faculty kindly allowed me to check out a Panasonic camera and sound recording equipment to bring back to my country. Professor Steve Ross gave me a lot of instruction about carrying the gear abroad, what to check and what to put in my backpack.” Lei expressed that Ross helped her greatly in preparation, even buying the camera an extra battery to ensure she would be able to shoot all day without interruption.
After getting the gear into China, Lei faced a new set of challenges while filming. One being sound recording. Since Lei was shooting the doc by herself, she was in a peculiar situation. “I was using double system, so I relied on my mom to record all the sound I needed. However, sometimes I was so busy capturing the moment that I did not inform my mom to start recording. Now my audio and video are not in sync at all, which means more than twice of the efforts I need to put in my post-production.” She also encountered some issues with filming at school the first day and was almost denied access to her doc subject. “Because I had not negotiated with the school principal at that time (I scheduled the meeting on the next day), even shooting outside the gate of the school was interrupted by security guards. They urged me to turn off the camera and called the school principal immediately. Luckily, the principal remembered me and allowed me to continue shooting without hesitation.”
Overall, even with the difficulty Lei faced, she still fell in love with documentary filmmaking. “Throughout the shooting process, I got the chance to look at the place where I spent 2 years from another angle. I found the beauty of it, which I had ignored. Even though I have really messy footage right now, I do not regret making it my project at all.” For those looking to film overseas, Lei shares this piece of advice, “to know the place well before shooting—transportation, food, anything. You’d better know some local people there too...please remember the preparation will never be enough for any shooting.”
Zhao’s documentary also focused on teaching, but that of a different kind. Hers followed a calligraphy teacher who has worked in the industry for ten years. Calligraphy, as Zhao describes it, is “writing Chinese characters. It’s black and white and has no pictures but is language…and language is a base of a nation or a culture for me.” Zhao’s motivation for choosing him as a documentary subject follows her desire to show the world “how he educates children and senior high school students differently in the same artform”. The artform is one that is very “traditional, classical and dying” all at the same time. This piqued Zhao’s interest and made her want to explore deeper “how in which they [calligraphers] lived” and how they planned on “passing this artform on to the next generation.”
By filming this documentary, Zhao’s goal was to “show many people from different cultural backgrounds this artform ” thus bringing more attention to it. Not knowing many people from this industry made it difficult at first for Zhao to locate her documentary subject. Luckily, her Mom provided her with the connections. “My Mom’s work offers these sorts of classes, such as dancing and calligraphy, so I contacted him through that.
After arriving in China, Zhao got to work using the advice provided from professors David Colagiovanni and Tom Hayes and the gear from Ohio University that allowed her multiple days of shooting. Zhao stated, “I am so grateful to them for allowing me to rent gear.” For, without it, her documentary would have been a silent piece. Thankfully, though, the university supplied her with a boom microphone, mixer, and tripod. Though she had ample equipment, Zhao still faced the second-most common problem in filmmaking: finding some helping hands. “It was difficult to find crew. Even though it was a small crew, I think I figured it out,” she said.
Zhao enjoyed the process of documenting her subject as a whole. “I really enjoyed getting to know him. I followed him around for a week. He let me do it even though he was really busy. I felt like I was disturbing him a bit but he never said anything.” For that, she is very grateful. Zhao had the feeling as if she was part of the class learning (“It was amazing to feel all those emotions.”). Seeing all the students working so hard to hone their craft only inspired Zhao more to show the world this artform. “This is an artform that should be respected. They take it very seriously and work very hard.”
Overall, Zhao felt “extremely lucky to be able to show this to those who don’t understand this artform and to do something to make a difference”. Zhao stresses for anyone shooting at any time to get permissions ahead of time with a subject. “I was really lucky. He said I can do whatever I want. But, in general, you should still make sure you have permission.”
Both Lei and Zhao are now in the editing process. They plan to turn in their documentaries at the end of the semester.