Sitting Down With International Documentary Filmmaker Emily Feng

Feng aims to make space in the industry for underrepresented voices and to connect people through shared humanity and emotions.

Interview

 

Emily Feng
Writer, editor, and film director Emily Feng.

 

Emily Feng is a writer, director, and editor based in New York City. She grew up in Vancouver and graduated from NYU in December of 2019. She has worked on music videos, narratives, brand campaigns, and documentaries. Most notably, her documentaries shot in Havana, Cuba have been selected at Best Shorts Competition, PopDoc Awards, Asian Film Festival Los Angeles Hollywood, and Seattle Asian American Film Festival. She is currently working on writing her first feature film and working as a videographer and video editor for The Chelsea Music Festival in NYC.

 

Feng aims to make space in the industry for underrepresented voices and to connect people, despite their differences, through shared humanity and emotions. I recently spoke with Emily about how she became interested in filmmaking, her experience making documentaries in Cuba, and the power of film to foster empathy. 

 

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity below.

 

Aria Chiodo: Tell me about your background—what was it like growing up in Vancouver and what made you want to move to NYC?

 

Emily Feng: I went to an all-girls private high school where I was really good at math and sciences. It was a STEM-focused high school and everyone was really smart and competitive. My parents wanted me to be a dentist. In 9th grade, we had the option to choose an elective so that’s when I picked film. At that point, I never had any exposure to digital art; I had done fine art like painting, but this was the first time I’d done anything film related. I learned so much and it was such an experience to formulate a story from start to finish, and to have something go from your head and imagination into an actual video. That process was so rewarding to me. I continued taking the film elective through high school and I found that I enjoyed it more than anything else I was doing, even though we had super small crews and a super small budget and old equipment, like heavy cameras we lugged around. But I just loved creating a story and filming it and spending hours in the editing room perfecting it.

 

In 12th grade I won my first film award and I was like “Wow, it’s so cool that everyone’s watching my film and I get rewarded for it.” So I applied for NYU. And because our film program was not really professional, I didn’t know what to expect at NYU. I just got in and then decided to go. And my parents were kind of unsure because we don’t have any relatives or friends in the industry, so we were all just like, “Let’s just go for it and see where it leads me.” So that’s how I ended up in New York. 

 

AC: What has your filmmaking experience been like so far, in film school and in the industry? 

 

EF: In film school, we actually got a lot of time and room for exploration, so a lot of people found their niche in directing, writing, or cinematography. I just kind of did everything and became a jack of all trades — I direct, I write, I edit, I shoot, so all of those skills have been really helpful at different points in my career and in personal projects. And film school is just a great way to meet people. I met a lot of peers who I’ve worked with over the years, and I’ve met professors and alum whose work inspire me, so I’ve emailed them for mentorship and questions.

 

After graduating, it was extremely helpful to have that network because we all refer each other for jobs and help each other out, especially this year and last year during the pandemic when we were all at home and the industry was kind of put on hold. So the network was really helpful, specifically my network — during film school and after, I always made the point to work with people of color and women, so I found that that network was even more close-knit and we help each other a lot. 

 

AC: Did you find a lot of diverse people in film school or was it limited and not very diverse in terms of professors and other students?

 

 EF: I think when I first entered, the professors weren’t super diverse. I think the well-known professors were mostly old white men, but I think it has been changing over the last few years. I feel like the student base was pretty diverse. Everyone came from somewhere different—some people came from arts high schools, some didn’t, some came from industry connections, like their family work in industry, a lot of people didn’t. 

 

Carlitos Poster
Carlitos, a film by Emily Feng.

 

AC:  What brought you to Havana? How long were you there?

 

EF: It was part of a study abroad program to Havana, and we were there for almost four months. Havana was one of the NYU programs that didn’t have a campus there — other programs had a campus and dorms— but Havana was just nine people dropped off in Havana living in a house together, gong to classes, making our films. 

 

[The program was made up of] half NYU teachers, and half were part of an arts foundation. So they had teachers there that taught us about history and arts in Cuba, and we also had a Spanish teacher. And then we had local Cuban students that were helping us with translation and getting around, because it was a big culture shock for us there. But it was a great experience to immerse ourselves in the culture, and we found that the program gave us the freedom to connect with locals, like other students of the university. I think with other study abroad programs there’s an NYU campus and such a big program that people stick with people they’re familiar with. I think that the Havana program was one of the only programs that you could really feel like you weren’t a tourist. 

 

AC: How did you meet the subjects of each of your short films? What was the experience like working with them? 

 

EF: When I went there, I had an idea of the kinds of films I wanted to make. I knew there was the idea of machismo in Cuba, so I wanted to explore that in an area that was stereotypically more feminine, like ballet, and Cuba has a huge emphasis on ballet as well. I thought it’d be interesting to find a young male ballet dancer as a subject. My two projects were both word of mouth — I found Carlitos, the subject of my first film, through one of the program coordinators who’s a ballet dancer. I basically followed he and his family around for a few days to interview him and film his interactions and his classes.

 

It was a different experience because in the U.S., you schedule interviews and send them Google invites and everything, but in Cuba because there’s very limited internet access and technology, you go there and you hope that they remember you have an interview with them. Carlitos actually didn’t tell his family that we were filming him, so we just showed up and his parents were very warm and inviting. I found that most people were very open to being filmed, and sometimes we’d just walk around in the neighborhood with our camera, and there’d be neighborhood parties and people blasting music in their houses or dancing in the street, and once we turned our camera on them, they’d just start dancing towards us and with us, so it was super open.

 

But one thing that was difficult was that I speak very introductory Spanish, so it was very difficult for me to communicate with them and conduct the interviews. One thing I learned there was that even though I’m using a translator to conduct these interviews, to build a closer bond with my subject, I need to speak to my subject, even though we don’t understand each other. Just the act of speaking to my subject creates the relationship of a director and subject, instead of speaking to the translator and the translator to the subject. So that was one of the main skills I learned there. 

 

Still from Tao Qi
A still from Feng's second film, Tao Qi. Watch here.

 

For my second film, Tao Qi, about a Chinese restaurant owner, I was interested because she was the only woman Chinese restaurant owner I’d heard of there. A foreign woman in Cuba running a business — I thought that was super interesting. So after a lot of phone calls to her restaurant and inability to reach her, I decided to go to her restaurant to eat there and I just waited for her to show up. Because she’s pretty well-off and her family is well-off (her husband is a famous martial artist), she had a smart phone and data access so in that aspect it was easier to reach her and organize. She was also very open. We didn’t really have a language barrier, because she spoke Chinese, and I speak very colloquial Chinese so it was easier than Spanish to communicate. So I followed her around for a couple days to observe her family life, her work life, and just her as an individual.

 

When I screened the film at the end of the program, the local Cubans were so surprised because they’d never heard of her before and never knew that she was so successful. Originally, I was going to do a story about both her and her husband, but I thought her story was more interesting because her husband was so well-known all over Cuba, but no one really knew about her.

 

AC:  Why do you think film is such an important medium, especially in the current global moment?

 

EF: In the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more how divided the world is, especially in America, and I just don’t really understand why there is so much hatred in the world. So one goal in filmmaking is that I want to connect people and help bring an understanding and acceptance of each other in the world through our commonalities, despite our differences. I want to make films that feature people from different backgrounds, cultures, people of color, and I want to showcase regular people with emotions that we all feel and do things that we all do that doesn’t stereotype or characterize.

 

For example, I related to both The Farewell, which is an Asian American movie and Ladybird, which is a white suburban family movie, because even though they feature characters of different races and backgrounds, their emotions, motivations, and family dynamics I related to. I feel like through film, we can normalize seeing different people and people of different colors, cultures, and languages, onscreen all around the world and just learn so much from each other. I want to create an open-minded environment where people can learn about others and understand others without judgment. I think filmmaking in general is a great way to create more empathy and I think empathy is such a big thing that the world really needs right now. 

 

AC: Are you working on any new projects as a director? Do you want to keep working on documentaries or are you interested in narrative as well?

 

EF: Currently I’m working freelance as a shooter/editor, and during the pandemic it’s easier to edit from home without exposing myself to risks. I’m really interested in short form — like music videos, commercials, branded content, short narratives and docs — and I hope to develop my experience in all of these genres. I do love narrative, because I feel like I have a lot of stories to tell, but narratives are more time consuming and expensive. I hope [to work on narratives] in the future. I actually wrote the first draft of a feature script and I’ve been revising that. It’s about a family living in Chinatown who get evicted from their tiny apartment because of gentrification and they have to find creative ways to make ends meet for their family. So that’s an idea that I want to revive after Covid. So I’m very excited about all the projects I have coming up after the pandemic, hopefully.

 

 

Film, Female authors, Art, Culture, Cuba