How to Be a Fearless Documentarian Like Nanfu Wang

A still from 'In The Same Breath' by Nanfu Wang, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The One Child Nation filmmaker opened Sundance with a devastating look at COVID-19 in Wuhan. It’s a must-see... unless you’re the Chinese government. 

Nanfu Wang’s documentary follows the outbreak of COVID-19 first in China, and then in the United States. On both sides of the world, we see propaganda, disinformation, and a crippling interference with frontline healthcare workers trying to stem the tide of death. The film is a gutting tale of a global virus rising alongside authoritarianism.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_G1DcbbkQ0

There’s no one quite like Wang in the documentary world, and none better suited to make this film.

Having grown up in China and strongly identifying with that identity, Wang has a lifelong interest in changing the Chinese government. Now, living in the United States with her American editing partner and husband, and their daughter, Wang is deeply committed to the American experience. She examines both for In the Same Breath.

After the premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Wang sat down to give an entire masterclass presentation for Co//ab on how she makes films. No Film School tuned in to hear her process, from how she edits, gets grants, and stays passionate. We compiled Wang's journey into a guide for documentarians. Let's dig in.

How Nanfu Wang had never seen a documentary until she left China 

“I took a very long detour to filmmaking,” said Wang. “I grew up in a small village in China. No movie theater. No TV until I was 10. Many villagers including Mom had never been to a movie theater. In 2007, I moved to Shanghai and got my first laptop. I watched Hollywood movies. I still didn’t know about documentary.”

It wasn’t until Wang left China to go to college in Ohio, where she planned to study journalism, that her life took a definitive turn towards docs.

“I took an introduction to documentary. After I saw [it], I realized this was the medium I wanted to do the most.”

In fact, Wang’s first film Hooligan Sparrow was started in college, where she thought it might become her thesis film. Instead, it became a seminal documentary, winning the Peabody Award and being shortlisted for an Academy Award!

How to deal with the dreaded dilemma of documentary funding

“I Googled grants and funds, I started a spreadsheet,” said Wang of her process when applying for funding for her first film. “Many of us can relate. It took more time to raise the funds than actually making the film itself!”

Wang applied to every single grant that she thought she was eligible for.

“It usually took six months or longer [for a grant] to respond. So it was a full year for me of just getting rejections. I applied to some of them a second round. I encourage everyone here to not think of a rejection as absolute. My first grant was from Sundance, and it was the second time I applied. I thought the second film would be easier; I was wrong. The second film didn’t raise any money. I was rejected from Sundance two or three times. I thought they loved me! But I realize they can’t fund everyone they like.”

How to film in incredibly sensitive situations 

“No precaution is unnecessary,” said Wang, dead serious. “When I was making Hooligan Sparrow, I didn’t know that would happen. I was naive about my country.”

During Hooligan Sparrow, Wang was physically threatened, questioned by government officials for hours, and followed. During One Child Nation, there was no direct contact. Threats and intimidation were sent instead to her family. Since her first film, Wang has learned to take precautions.

“We use encrypted messages set to half an hour or so to disappear. Footage security always has copies and ships right away. In China, shipping is not safe, so we are talking about someone physically taking it somewhere. The longer it didn’t arrive at my place, the riskier it is.”

One of the biggest precautions Wang takes is with the subjects and crew in her film.

“Everybody who is working with me has an open conversation about the consequences at the beginning. If they don’t feel comfortable, they leave the project.”

With her new film In the Same Breath, it was all shot remotely during the pandemic, and she had 10 filmmakers in China and 10 filmmakers in America covering COVID from inside hospitals, in homes, and at the cemetery.

“Each person only has a small piece of the project. That way, they do not have the knowledge. If they get asked, they can deny because they don’t actually know the whole project.”

Building trust with subjects who may be risking their lives by doing so 

The first thing Wang makes sure of when approaching anyone to be in her films is to have a frank conversation about all the good and bad things that can happen to them by being in the film. Whether it’s the Chinese government or the unseen effects of becoming famous, she does her best to explain that she can’t predict what will happen.

And in most of her films, Wang has been guided by the principle that whatever risks her subjects are taking, she will take too. In Hooligan Sparrow and I Am Another You, her subjects became family.  

“In Hooligan Sparrow, we were experiencing intimidation together.”

For I am Another You, she lived on the street with her homeless subject, despite many people in her life expressing concern about what might happen to her.

Filming for In the Same Breath was different because there were many subjects, and she had to film all of them remotely.

“I talked an hour a day before that interview with all of them. It’s about human empathy. During the conversation, I listen and show I do care. It’s not an effort. I would be moved to tears when they tell me something and I feel the same. I think the trust is built even in that conversation.”

In editing and post-production, always be flexible to where your story takes you

So far in her career, Wang has either edited all her documentaries herself or with her editing partner, her husband Michael Shade, with whom she has been collaborating since they met at Ohio University. 

‘It’s important to know what story I am telling, but also to stay open to change,” said Wang. “Hooligan Sparrow, I thought was about sex workers.”

It became about activists shedding light on sexual abuse corruption and cover-up intimidation by the Chinese government.

“I thought In the Same Breath was just about China,” said Wang of her new documentary. “By March, it forced me to rethink, what is going on here, in the United States? Let your questions and the reality guide the story.”

Review your footage as soon as it is in the can

“I like to review the footage as quick as possible after I film it,” said Wang. “The reason is because I’m eager to see whether the moment I remember or saw with my eyes translated with the footage. It also makes the next filming trip more efficient. I’m filming and editing in my head and know how this can be cut together.”

The difficult truth about achieving your goals for a film

Wang learned the hard way that finishing the film is just the beginning for creating any kind of impact.

“It is a full-time job to be on the film if you want to maximize the reach,” she said. “Even if you have a distributor, if you want to change policy and system, it’s a lot of work. I thought, once the film comes out, all the people in Hooligan Sparrow would get released. It didn’t happen. Three months went by, six months. What is the impact if it didn’t have any physical visible impact on the Chinese government?”

Her frustration has been a slow understanding of the realities of being a documentary filmmaker.

“I would go to screenings, encounter Chinese Americans or Chinese students, or others. They would say, ‘You showed me part of the country or world I didn't know about. It completely changed how I saw it, and would never see it that way again.’ So it might take 10 years to impact, to have a kind of change.”

And for Wang, the hard reality is that she can’t be the only one motivating that change.

“I don’t want to spend a year or five years to do outreach. I want to create a new film. I reconcile with that reality.”

Can Wang ever go back to China?

Wang’s family lives in China. In fact, it was at the beginning of 2020 when she last traveled home, as you see in the new documentary In the Same Breath. She had left her son to spend time with her mother, and come back to the United States for a trip to that year's Sundance. Suddenly, the Chinese government was shutting down all travel for the mysterious virus. Wang and her husband were barely able to get their son back before China shut down completely.

Nanfu Wang, director of In The Same Breath, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Peter Hurley.

“Every time it was uncertain, each time I would try and find out,” she said. “It was when I made I Am Another You that I was invited to play a Chinese Film Festival. I knew I was OK to travel then because I started to receive state media requests to interview me on ‘the dark side of America.’”

Advice on the difficult journey of making documentaries 

“I appreciate the process of discovering,” said Wang. “But it’s not an easy journey. Passion is the most important thing. When there was no hope, when it’s very difficult, you’ll need passion. Ask yourself, why do I choose to do this?”


Thank you, Nanfu!     

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.

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