Interview with Filmmaker Janine Bujie Zhang (SISTER)

SISTER played to rave reviews at the June 2021 RELATIONSHIPS Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

The inspiration for ‘Sister’ came from an internship I did in May 2020. I visited a small village in the Southeast of China and noticed that the town was mostly occupied by the elderly and children. After watching movies and read literature on left-behind children, I found that there are deep-rooted stereotypes for them – Poverty and misery became their tag. Some even draw a direct correlation between left-behind children and problem children. People shed tears for these children’s misfortune and critic their parents and society. I wondered: What would the children say about their life?

I went back to the village and spent some days with the locals. I found that people in this village have a very traditional Chinese-style family bonding, which often lacks communication. Love and affections are soaked into the negligible details of life rather than words. I once had the experience of living alone with my grandparents as a child. Absent parenting sometimes may leave impacts on children’s personalities such as being precocious, sensitive, and overly observant from a very early age. However, from the children’s perspective, they don’t really see any difference from ordinary children. Their life is interesting and their inner world is abundant.

In a conversation I had with a boy in the village, I asked him does he miss his parents. With a pair of red eyes and a stubborn face, he answered to the negative. Yet I could feel the toughness he pretended and see through the armor he puts on to disguise his longing for the absent parents. It was at that moment, I knew that I want to tell a story to show the voice of left-behind children.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

The whole production process took about 3 months. I spent a lot of time to really be with the locals, observe their life and listen to what they love to share with me. And I think their true feelings what they want to say about their experiences are the most important thing. The actual shooting took 3 days.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Reserve, and sentimental.

When developing the script, I created two distinct sisters to show how an environment have diverse impacts on people with disparate personalities. Instead of strong dramatic tension, I created plots that pertain to the daily life of the countryside of China to better deliver a unique and vivid picture of the Chinese style of family bonding. Pushing people to feel sad for them is what I try to avoid. I used a more reserved way to tell this story, also keep it simple and sincere enough to feel reveal the relationship bondings between families.

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

This is the first short film I’ve ever made. I would say that making this film was the biggest obstacle. Every step of it was a challenge for me. I would love to share a bit details about it.

The ideal location of this film has to convey both the real condition of Chinese villages and a relatively romantic setting for the sisters to develop their inner world. Most practically, it has to be accessible for my crew and equipment. I spent weeks scouting in mountains, driving more than 6 hours a day, exhausting all the potentially suitable villages, eventually finding the only one option that fits my criteria.

The casting was also a process of constant revision of my ideas. After several auditions, I gave up on using kids who grew up in the city with acting experiences. Kids from cities are quite different from those who are brought up in the villages. I visited various local schools in search of the two female leads. I settled on two girls who were totally fresh to the camera but had similar experiences as my protagonists. Fortunately, they did an amazing job, and giving me their best!

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

I literally cried. I was so happy that my first short film was viewed by this much people, and the deep family bonding between the families, between the two girls are relatable to them.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

Well, it’s a really long story. I’ll try to keep it short. I was considered a rebel in the Chinese education system. When I was 15, I transferred to the United States for high school education. I was eager to find an environment where I could fit in. Yet my high school was an extremely strict religious school. I had to keep the relationship with my girlfriend underground, because students would get kicked out for being a ‘homosexual’. It was a tough time. I found myself deeply attracted to themes related to freedom, and was writing short stories about fictional figures that could carry my thoughts and emotions. Those stories set me free from the reality. Yet I was not given the opportunity to share my stories.

I was eager for a chance that enables me to express freely, and be myself.

In September 2019, I saw The Shawshank Redemption on the big screen for its 25th anniversary. I was struck by the protagonist’s constant pursuit of freedom and individualism. It dawned on me that film is a medium of communication and representation. So I’ve decided to become a filmmaker. I want to speak out to my audiences on behalf of the minorities. Children, women, people of underprivileged areas, they are all potential protagonists of my stories.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

I watch all kinds of films. Since I’ve decided to be a filmmaker, I took more away from watching movies than merely aesthetic enjoyment.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

I think it’s great! Very user friendly.

9. What is your favorite meal?

I have a Chinese stomach. I love traditional Chinese dishes so much! 10. What is next for you? A new film?
Sister helped me to make sure that film is something I want to do for a lifetime. I will pursuit graduate film education in USC starting from August. And yes, new films!

By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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