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Breaking through, pt. 1: Nanfu Wang on film, fundraising and family

As recent studies concerning the sustainability of carving out a career in documentary filmmaking have made clear, it’s not a line of work for the faint of heart. But simultaneously, ...
May 27, 2019

As recent studies concerning the sustainability of carving out a career in documentary filmmaking have made clear, it’s not a line of work for the faint of heart. But simultaneously, with more platforms and audiences hungry for content and new opportunities for funding and distribution emerging, perhaps it’s never been a better time for passionate creators to enter the fray. In this four-part series, Realscreen spotlights several directors who have taken the plunge and are breaking through with their early projects, beginning with Nanfu Wang.

Major credits: Hooligan Sparrow (2016), I Am Another You (2017), One Child Nation (2018)

Nanfu Wang’s path to documentary filmmaking wasn’t a simple one growing up in a remote village in Jiangxi Province, China.

The Emmy-nominated and Peabody-winning filmmaker was just a child when her father passed away at the age of 34. Wang’s family could not afford to send her to high school or college, and so her education ended at the age of 12 when she was forced to drop out and instead offer financial support to her loved ones.

Wang persisted. She overcame poverty and lack of access to formal secondary education to earn graduate degrees in communications and documentary film at Shanghai University, Ohio University and NYU, respectively.

Her feature-length films now bring to light the injustices that she faced while growing up in China: the education system, the nation’s One Child policy, the healthcare system and poverty, and government corruption.
Wang’s third and most recent film, One Child Nation, won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

What inspired you to first become a filmmaker?
Since I was little, I always liked storytelling. I hoped whatever I did would have some social impact, and potentially change some of the injustices I saw growing up in China. One is my father’s death when I was 12 — it made me question a lot of the healthcare system because he shouldn’t have died at the age of 34. My father’s death affected me [because] it made me re-think time. Wanting to change these injustices and tell stories, while also feeling extremely precious about time and knowing I have limited time in the world, I started thinking about journalism.

How do you typically go about getting your films financed?
Fundraising is the most challenging and my least favorite part of filmmaking. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to fundraise but could focus on creating films. It’s frustrating because it feels like you spend 60% of your time trying to get the film made — it feels discouraging.

The first film, Hooligan Sparrow, was the most difficult because I was learning about everything. I was lucky though, [in that I received] investment for it. It gave me a lot of confidence that people believed in it so much that they were willing to put up their money even though we know the risks of returns on documentaries.

I hoped that the second film, I Am Another You, would be easier but it turned out not to be the case as it was completely self-funded. It’s a valuable lesson that I learned — as a filmmaker or artist, your previous success does not guarantee your future success.

Success lasts for five seconds and failure lasts for five months.

What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers?
I believe you need to be in love, and passionate about this to endure every aspect. Emerging filmmakers need to know how challenging and difficult it can be, but also know that if they really want to do it, it’s possible.

Success lasts for five seconds and failure lasts for five months. After that you have to do it all over, and whether it’s success or failure it doesn’t matter that much — keep going and treat every film like it’s the first and as fuel to start over again.

This story first appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.

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About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news editor at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joined the RS team in 2015 with experience in journalism following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and with communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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