HotDocs Interview – WUHAN WUHAN director Yung Chang

“WUHAN WUHAN goes beyond salacious headlines and mis-information, to show the human dimension of the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of COVID-19 by telling the stories of five characters: a couple expecting a baby, a quarantined mother and son in a byzantine shelter, a dedicated nurse and ER doctor, and a psychologist facing her own family crisis while helping patients with the unknown threat. In a time when the world needs greater cross-cultural understanding, WUHAN WUHAN is an invaluable depiction of a metropolis joining together to overcome a crisis.” Filmmaker Yung Chang on WUHAN WUHAN which is screening at HotDocs. 

Welcome to HotDocs! Is this your first HotDocs experience and what are you looking forward to the most?

I have been attending Hot Docs since my first film EARTH TO MOUTH premiered here in 2003. I always look forward to the social gatherings and catching up with peers. I know it’ll be virtual, but still looking forward to seeing familiar faces. 

Tell me about your previous visit here and what your experience was like.

Loved the atmosphere, the buzz, the late nights, the audiences’ love for filmmaking and documentaries. 

How did you get your start in the business and what have you worked on in the past?

Started by diving into my first film UP THE YANGTZE. WUHAN WUHAN will be my fifth feature. My films have premiered at international film festivals including Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, and IDFA and have played theatrically in cinemas around the world. Up the Yangtze was one of the top-grossing documentary releases in 2008. In 2013, China Heavyweight became the most widely screened social-issue documentary in Chinese history with an official release in 200 Mainland Chinese cinemas.

How did this doc come together?

Producers Diane Quon (MINDING THE GAP), Oscar-winner Donna Gigliotti (HIDDEN FIGURES), martial arts superstar Donnie Yen (from the IP MAN series) and Starlight Media based in the US contacted me to put together 300 hours of raw footage filmed by a crew of 30 into a feature doc. My first remotely edited film and my first experience not being on location. In fact, the material was like “found footage” for me. I was tackling the material completely untethered from being connected to the footage, the way I would have if I was the director on location.

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

For this particular film, I was driven by the need to show a human dimension to the city of Wuhan and to dispel anti-Asian sentiments. 

What was your biggest challenge with creating this doc, and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge is whittling 300 hours of footage down to a manageable feature length. I’m not sure if the process is ever rewarding until you share it with an audience and glean the emotional impact it may or may not have one someone. Usually, it’s hard for me to watch my films until years after their release. 

Let’s get technical! Tell me about the cameras-slash-equipment you used and the 

post-production process.

The film was shot on Canon 300’s and various cameras of which I’m not aware of because I wasn’t on location. Post-production was conducted remotely with my editing team in Los Angeles while I worked in Toronto.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your work at HotDocs?

Looking forward to just getting this film out there right now. I hope it fills a void and offers a hopeful glimpse into the pandemic experience…that we all share the same emotions and experiences regardless of where we’re from.

Of course this is an unpredictable time having this show virtually. How do you feel about movies being shown in this format & do you feel this is right, or do you wish to have a more traditional theatrical release?

There’s nothing like a live film festival, in person. But I’ll take whatever I can get right now. Grateful for the platform to release a film and that we have the technical capabilities for people to still engage with films without cinemas. 

Where is the doc going next?

Rolling the film out to international film festivals, many embargoed until announcement!

What is the one thing that you would say to someone wishing to get into filmmaking, either short or long format, especially now as things are changing at such a fast rate?

Don’t rush. Hone your craft. Find your voice. Immerse yourself in music, art, books, movies and experiences. Go for long walks. Daydream. And work hard. 

And finally, what is your favourite documentary of all time and why?

Impossible to specify. It depends on my mood…I love Salesman by the Maysles. I love Peter Mettler’s God, Gambling LSD. I love Three Sisters by Wang Bing. And Harlan County USA by Barbara Kopple.

WUHAN WUHAN is now streaming at HotDocs 2021! Thanks to David Magdael and TCDM for assistance with this interview.

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