‘I Am Another You’: How SXSW Award-Winner Nanfu Wang Finds the Extraordinary in the Ordinary
Art and Experience: Nanfu Wang follows up her highly acclaimed ‘Hooligan Sparrow’ with a deceptively complex take on contemporary American life.
In Nanfu Wang’s SXSW award-winning doc I Am Another You, what seems like a fairly straightforward portrait of a disarmingly charming “homeless by choice” young man ends up leaving you questioning the very meaning of freedom. The film’s artfully constructed three-act structure begins with Wang joining her protagonist, Dylan, in an Americana adventure that recalls the boxcar freighthopping days of yore. The cameras revisit Dylan over several years and much more becomes revealed about both his inner demons, and those of the United States at large.
Wang’s own story is almost as compelling as her subject’s. She came to the US from China, where she had never even experimented with filmmaking. After discovering a love for documentary films, she enrolled as a Masters student at NYU Film School, and started shooting I Am Another You in her first semester.
After second semester, Wang began filming Hooligan Sparrow, which became her first completed doc and ended up premiering at Sundance and getting shortlisted for an Oscar. True to her humble nature, she simply states, “it was unexpected.”
No Film School sat down with Wang after the world premiere of I Am Another You at SXSW 2017, to discuss this impressive trajectory to early success, tips for one-man-banding your documentary shoots, how to trust your storytelling instincts, and more.
NFS: What do you think has made you so successful so early in your career?
Wang: I don’t know. That’s a good question because I haven’t even thought about that, but I think a few things: one, I’m a really persistent person. Both films started when I was a student, and nobody would think that they would become a big project.
[I Am Another You] started as just a trip during my vacation and I filmed it. But I’m very persistent and curious, so that drove me to find out more and continue filming and to eventually finish it and I think that curiosity is probably what helped. I could’ve totally abandoned it, but I wanted to keep digging.
I also just like filmmaking so much because I like filming, I like editing, I like being creative and finding ways to express the story. So that helped me too—constantly exploring new forms and ways of telling the story.
“It’s basically discovering the film while you make the film, or even in the editing process.”
Wang: I don’t know why I have good instincts. Maybe because I studied English literature before I started in documentary. And since I was a kid, I always loved storytelling and knew that’s something that I wanted to do. Before I knew how to make documentaries, I wanted to be a writer, and I feel that I have a good instinct of knowing what the story is or how to identify a good character.
Of course, I think a lot of storytellers have that ability to identify [good characters] because they all have similar characteristics: charisma, being natural in front of camera, and something unique about them that sets them apart from ordinary people.
And once I find a good character, I think I have a good judgment in trying to adapt myself to where the story is going. With both films, I did not know what a story was going to be, and it’s basically discovering the film while you make the film, or even in the editing process.
I don’t like to decide ahead of time what film I’m gonna make. I think that oftentimes, if you have an idea that the film is going to be a certain way, you’ll be disappointed or the story won’t be good because you are forcing it to go into what’s already in your mind. I tend to follow the story and discover it, and I love that part.
“A filmmaker’s job is to find a way to tell a seemingly boring or ordinary story in an extraordinary way.”
NFS: So have there been moments where you are trying to follow a story and then you think, “What if there’s no story here?”
Wang: No. I believe anything could be a great story. I believe any person could be a great story. Of course, when I was making these films, there were people asking me, “So what is your story about?”
Especially with this one, because its meaning is not as apparent as Hooligan Sparrow which is about human rights abuses. in China This one, a lot of people, especially in America, my friends, asked, “Why is a homeless person worth following? We see people like him all the time and what is the story?” But I believe any person has a story and a filmmaker’s job is to flesh the story out and to find a way to tell a seemingly boring or ordinary story in an extraordinary way.
NFS: What do you think that you brought from your background in literature to telling visual stories?
Wang: I think it’s the love for story. Since I was a child, I enjoyed telling stories to other people or listening to stories or reading stories. I love reading. And when I was in China, I wrote a lot too. But since I came here and there was a language barrier, I realized I don’t know how many years it’s gonna take me to become an exceptional English writer because I’m still trying to grasp the language.
But as soon as I learned about documentaries and watched one, and I started using my camera for the first time, I became obsessed with it. At first, I was taking stills, and then taking videos all the time. I think it was when I discovered visual language, and I was filming non-stop, and even sometimes when I didn’t have a camera with me, I would look into the world and imagine if I had a camera right now and I could do one shot of you, which part would I feature to show who you are?
I would sit on the subway train just look at what’s in front of me and think what my framing would be, and I just became so passionate about every frame that it was the perfect language for me. It combines my interest in storytelling and seeing the world and being observant.
NFS: So do you shoot everything yourself?
Wang: Hooligan Sparrow was all me. This film, the first chapter is all me. The second chapter I knew I wanted to get different angles, so my husband came with me, and the third chapter we had three: me and my husband and another person.
NFS: Do you have any pointers for people who want to shoot for themselves and need to be able to focus on their subject and the story at the same time as they are behind the camera?
Wang: I think the most challenging part would be to shoot and do sound at the same time, especially depending on what camera you use. If you use a DSLR, the sound recording is more difficult and I think that’s one thing you should pay attention to—just to get the right sound and plan to leave a little bit of time to record environmental sound.
The other thing that I found useful was to review the footage every night or as much as you can, and then reflect on what the story is as it goes on day by day. Then make a list, even if it’s in your mind, of things that you need to shoot tomorrow or what you have missed and you needed to get, and just think.
“When you are shooting a scene, you are editing the film.”
I also always try to remind myself that when you are shooting a scene, you are editing the film. You want to edit from the wide space to show how many people are in this room, to the close-up to show the emotion there, and if you want to show somebody’s identity, you need to get a close-up of some item that would identify them, so just think as if you’re in the editing room.
NFS: In this film, your feelings clearly change about your subject over time, and there’s a point where you’re really disappointed in him and are candid with the audience about it. How did you balance telling an honest story with being respectful to your subject when some scenes might not be very flattering to him?
Wang: I think that’s my principle to being a person, not only to being a filmmaker: just be honest, be authentic, and I think that’s the best way to communicate what it is you feel in real life. In film, I slowly discovered that the best way to say something is to tell the truth rather than to hide it or try to get around it.
For example, with Hooligan Sparrow, there were parts where I just literally don’t have footage. Like I didn’t get it. And then you either don’t show that part of the story or you show it by trying to cover the fact that you don’t have enough footage. And I think any audience, they are so savvy and perceptive, they could tell all your intentions, so why don’t I just say, “I was there but I couldn’t film this, I don’t have the footage, but I do want to tell what happened.”
And so in this film too, I had to edit and re-edit to get to this point, but there were things that I always thought, “How should I say that I didn’t notice he was drinking all the time?” I was so naïve, I was so ignorant, and do I hide it? Where do I bring it up? How can I reveal that? And then, in the end, I knew that I couldn’t hide it. I just had to admit that I had a bias and I didn’t see [his alcoholism when I was filming].
And the same with my emotions and judgment towards Dylan. I think that part was not even a challenging thought for me because when we were on the shoots, I had openly expressed it to him. So he knew what my feelings were.
NFS: Since you shot the film over such a long period of time and the story took unexpected turns, how did you ultimately figure out the structure?
Wang: I didn’t know the structure really because, when I was filming, the story was evolving all the time. At first, I thought it was a story about Dylan and the homeless life as a window to see American society. Then, when I met his father, I thought it was a story about the conflict and love between a father who is a detective and a son who is a drifter, and their two very contrasting personalities. Finally, when I learned that Dylan has a history with rebellion and mental health issues, I realized that the story was not about the father; it’s Dylan’s story and the father is a supporting character.
And I looked at the material—it was shot over the course of four years and there were big breaks in between—and each part is very different from the earlier parts, and my understanding of Dylan and the American society have changed so much.
So I looked at them and I realized that’s the trajectory of the film and that’s also how I should tell the story and I should embrace the differences [between the sections] as well, and just make the differences even more obvious and break them apart rather than try to blend them together.
“From pre-production to distribution, you get all the people’s opinions, and I feel you need to follow your heart and just do it and find it out yourself.”
NFS: Great. Any other thoughts about the film that you’d like to share, or advice for other documentarians from your experience?
Wang: My company is called A Little Horse Crossing The River, and it’s from a story that my dad told me when I was six or seven, and he passed away when I was 12. So in my whole life, I always wanted a father figure that could tell me, “Hey, this is the right thing to do,” or, “This is the wrong thing to do.” But I never had that. But the story he told always stayed with me.
The story is about a little horse, and one day the mother horse asked the little horse to go across the river to get something, but the little horse had never crossed the river and he went and came back in a few minutes and the mother horse said, “Did you get the thing that I asked you for?” And he said, “No, because I didn’t go,” and the mother went, “Why?” And he replied, “I got to the river, yet the squirrel in the tree yelled at me and said, ‘You will drown in the river, my father even died, it’s so deep,'” And he stepped back, and the buffalo in the river said, “No, no. It’s okay. You can cross easily. The level of the water is only at my ankles.”
And so he didn’t know what to do and he came back to ask the mom. My dad told me, “Lots of people will tell you advice based on their own experience, what they think is right. And oftentimes that advice would be contradictory, and you only need to try it yourself to find it out.” And I felt that was true with every stage as I was making the film, because from pre-production to distribution, you get all the people’s opinions, and I feel you need to follow your heart and just do it and find it out yourself. That’s my advice.