“Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese student, comes to the U.S. to study. In her detailed and beautiful diaries, the aspiring young scientist and teacher is full of optimism, hoping to also be married and a mother someday. Within weeks of her arrival, Yingying disappears from the campus. Through exclusive access to Yingying’s family and boyfriend, Finding Yingying closely follows their journey as they search to unravel the mystery of her disappearance and seek justice for their daughter while navigating a strange, foreign country. But most of all, Finding Yingying is the story of who Yingying was: a talented young woman loved by her family and friends.” Director Jiayan “Jenni” Shi on FINDING YINGYING which screens at the 2020 edition of SxSW Film.
Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW
Welcome to SxSW! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
Yes! This will be my first time at SXSW. I will be attending all four screenings. FINDING YINGYING’S world premiere is on March 13.
So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past?
I had never thought about being a filmmaker before I came to the U.S. four years ago. I was born and raised in China. Right after graduating from college in China, I came to study at the Medill school of Journalism at Northwestern University. In my last quarter at Medill, I took Brent E. Huffman’s documentary journalism class and worked on Yingying’s story under his guidance. Brent has been a huge supporter and mentor to me since then.
While working on FINDING YINGYING, I freelanced as a digital content editor at Kinding Group and a community reporter at Free Spirit Media in Chicago. I shot, edited and produced video stories about immigration, health and education. I also worked as a translator for the Oscar-winning American Factory at that time.
How did the doc all come together?
The first time I learned about Yingying was through a message from my college alum group chat. Yingying and I had both attended Peking University in China. The message said a Chinese student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was missing. At that time, I myself was an international student studying just a few hours away. The Chinese student groups in Urbana-Champaign and in the Chicago area started spreading the word and began an extensive search. After Yingying’s family arrived in the U.S., I also went down to Champaign to see how I could help. I reached out to the leading student volunteer group in Champaign and found Shilin Sun, who later became the co-producer and cinematographer of the film. That’s how I first met Yingying’s family and began to learn more about Yingying.
We started filming in June 2017, right after Yingying went missing, and then spent five months with Yingying’s family in Champaign. They went back to China in the fall of 2017 as they ran out of money and didn’t find anything. The trial was also delayed at that time. We went to China in 2018 to film their life at home and to learn more about Yingying. In April 2019, Yingying’s family came back to the U.S. for the trial. Shilin and I attended the trial the whole time and were able to capture Yingying’s family’s reaction. We finished production in the fall of 2019. Meanwhile, our editor John Farbrother started cutting scenes together in the spring of 2019 and got a final product in February 2020. That’s to say, we spent around two years and eight months making FINDING YINGYING.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
Yingying and I are almost the same age and shared similar experiences. We both came to the U.S. as an international student. When I first heard that she was missing, I was very worried, just like so many other Chinese students in the U.S. at that time.
The more time I spent with Yingying’s family, the more I thought about my own parents. I knew how devastated they would have been if this had happened to me. I knew how much a Chinese family has to give up to send their children abroad for a better future. Yingying and her family’s story resonated with me a lot. What’s more, I was afraid that Yingying and her family would be forgotten eventually as time passed by. That’s why I decided to continue following Yingying’s case and make a film that honors Yingying and her family.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
It was not an easy story to tell. One of the biggest challenges we have was building trust with Yingying’s family and other subjects in the film, as well as maintaining the long-term relationships. Yingying’s family hesitated to be part of the film at the very beginning because their focus was totally on searching for Yingying. With the limited access, we started documenting the places Yingying used to live and work. Meanwhile, Shilin and I were volunteering to help the family in Champaign. As the search continued, Yingying’s family opened up a lot because they realized that they needed media to keep the public’s attention on Yingying’s case. They didn’t want to be forgotten since so much media coverage at that time was about the investigation and the killer. We got really close to each other and they treated us as their own children.
As a first-time filmmaker, I struggled with ethical issues. I have asked myself thousands of times why I’m filming the worst moments of someone’s life. I also had a hard time managing my own emotions after being with the family for a long time and following such tragedy closely. Fortunately, I received huge support from the documentary community in Chicago, especially from Kartemquin Films. I’m a graduate of the 2018 Diverse Voices in Docs (DVID) fellowship program and we had a workshop about ethics with documentary legend Gordon Quinn. I was able to discuss specific situations with Gordon afterwards. He gave me a lot of insight to navigate ethical dilemmas. Shuling Yong, my mentor at DVID, was very patient with my endless questions and helped me practice my pitch over and over.
The most rewarding moment to me is when I showed the film to the subjects. It was such an honor to be trusted by them and given the opportunities to tell their stories. Hearing how deeply they were moved by the film, I felt all the hard work was paid off. I’m very lucky to have a great team standing by me along this journey. I started FINDING YINGYING when I was still a student at Northwestern University. Brent E. Huffman, my professor at that time, came on board as producer. I also learnt so much from producer Diane Quon, who believes in young Asian voices and has connected Finding Yingying to a larger world. I’d like to give a special thanks to our amazing editor John Farbrother who made the magic to bring the film to life. What’s more, Finding Yingying wouldn’t have been made without co-producer and cinematographer Shilin Sun, who was with me all the time in this emotional journey behind the camera.
I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
Most footage of Finding Yingying was shot with Sony FS5. We had a Sony A7III as a secondary camera. Both co-producer Shilin Sun and I are the cinematographers. The biggest challenge in production was that the family weren’t comfortable with a lot of gear. At some intimate moments, even FS5 was too big for them, so we had to use smaller cameras. There were many shoots that we didn’t have time to plan ahead and had to pick up the camera and film right away, so the collaboration between Shilin and I was crucial. Shilin is a great cinematographer to work with, who has a good eye to capture the essence of a tragic story and understands how to assess unexpected situations in production.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
I have never been to Austin, so it’s very exciting to bring FINDING YINGYING there! Yingying’s disappearance is a huge story in China, but not as many people are aware of the case here in the U.S. Yingying is still missing and her family have not been able to bring her back home. We want to reach as many people as possible to share Yingying’s story and spark conversations to hopefully break stereotypes. As one of the largest and most prestigious festivals in the U.S., SXSW is the perfect place for the world premiere. We hope the film can take off from SXSW and travel around the world!
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
The next stop right after SXSW is the Wisconsin Film Festival. It’s a great opportunity to show the film in Wisconsin because there are many international students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well. I have a lot of college friends studying there now. We have more film festivals coming up, and we’re also looking for streaming partners to bring this story to a broader audience.
If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
I really want to screen Finding Yingying in the Urbana-Champaign area where the story happened. Yingying’s disappearance has a huge impact on the international students community and the local community there. We made this film to celebrate Yingying’s life, so it means a lot to us that those who are very close to the story can really see who Yingying was. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has one of the largest Chinese students populations in the U.S. We hope this film will help to build understanding and break the stereotypes many have of the “Chinese international student.”
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive, like talking and texting, during a movie even if it’s a screening of your own?
We really appreciate your attendance and support for the film, but we also hope you could respect everyone’s efforts and the story itself.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Filmmaking sounds exciting, but sometimes it can be lonely and painful. So it’s really important to learn how to work with others. Never take things for granted. Please respect your subjects and be grateful for those who helped you along the way.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
I really love LAST TRAIN HOME directed by Linxin Fan, which is about a Chinese migrant workers family struggle for life and future as China grows to be a world superpower. I first watched this film in my college in China and then was recommended by my professor in graduate school here in the U.S. There are many documentaries about social issues in China, but this film is one of the most beautiful, poetic and thought-provoking films that I can’t stop thinking about. I’m a huge fan of vérité films, and I love how LAST TRAIN HOME allows the audience to be with the family and witness their struggle through intimate moments, which is exactly what I tried to do with FINDING YINGYING.
For more information on this film and to follow its progress into the festival world, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!