Mission StatementThis film is a collaborative and personal experiment with film as a medium of relationship building, self-reflection and discovery. Your support will help grow a creative genre of filmmaking and give visibility to the under/misrepresented stories of Chinese and Chinese international students.
About The Project
“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
——Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
The film is an audiovisual profile featuring lives of four (myself excluded) young Chinese students during the aftermath of the pandemic stitched together from exhaustive interviews and weeklong immersive observations and interactions with them. Growing up in similar social circles and with the same urban memories of one of the world’s fastest-developing cities, Shenzhen, these four young souls have set on different paths in pursuit of their respective futures.
I have met these four people — participants of the film — at varying stages of my life during childhood or teenage years while I was still in China. I had a friendship relation with each of them until losing touch after major life changes including all kinds of graduation. Through different experiences in the Chinese public education, three of them have travelled abroad to pursue differing ambitions as only one one have persevered in the competitive domestic system and then the top institutions of the country. I have heard at a distance about these four friends sometime over the years, whose achievements or ambitions have intrigued me.
Ира Liang studies Russian language at Peking University and is invested in competitive sports and gaming; Thomas Li has just taken a gap year from Columbia University while interning in some of the largest companies in China, but plans to resume his studies in philosophy and economics this fall; Jeno Zhuo, also in a gap year, continues to his advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community in the nonprofit world of China after dealing with personal traumas; Krystal Yao is a high-energy aspiring entrepreneur experienced in youth community building and networking.
Lost in a struggle to find my purpose and recognize my passion, I decide to turn to these four friends for inspirations while documenting their current lives and our journey of reconnection and collective reflection. Filming takes place as I shadow each of them for a week of their lives.
Inspired by cinema verite and the essay film traditions, the aesthetics of “backwater” short film will be coordinated with the narrator’s (myself) physical and spiritual journey during the course of production. The aim is to provoke a sense of experience and discovery.
Sources of footage include travelogue footage, observational footage of the participants, participatory and sit-down interviews, my autobiographical materials and other found footage, official or archival images. The film will follow two storylines: the first is my own spiritual journey searching for passion and meaning of freedom; the second thread is my weeklong interaction with each participant. The story of each participant will largely follow a chronological structure. Between the visits, I will use poetic audiovisual diaries and voice-over narration as transitional devices and as space for personal reflections and documentation of thought progression and growth. I will also use voice-over narration throughout the film as the main structuring device.
I want to make the film because I want to reclaim my pandemic experience. As people consciously made significant life changes during the pandemic, such as a career shift or building new life habits, I was continuing online classes alone in a dorm room while wallowing in depression. Making this film is the move to take me out of the mediated world of abstractions and to examine the question that bothered me through a method that is experiential and grounded in actuality.
I also want to make the film because I want to contribute to telling the story of Chinese and Chinese international students. Up to 2020, Chinse international students accounted for more than a third of the 1.1M international student population in the US, with double the size of the second-highest group. Yet, media representation of the group is barely existent, with the scarce stories often portraying the students as spoiled rich kids. On the American side, Chinese international students are those who don't quite mingle or have student loans to pay; on the Chinese side, they are the privileged middle-class kids of first/second-tier cities who have escaped the rigorous and cruel competition at home. Additionally, in recent years, the global rise of nationalism and the increasingly strained China-US relationship — peaked during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic — made the group further unwelcomed on both sides.
By sharing my own story and those of the three international student participants, I hope this film can not only help bring more visibility and understanding to the population, but empower those who found home between the shores.
“Backwater” is the verbatim translation of the Chinese phrase “后浪”, which means the younger generation or, literally, waves that come later. Originated in ancient Chinese poetry, the phrase is often used to express the optimism that each new generation will be better off than the last one.
On the other hand, in English language, backwater denotes an isolated place where the river becomes stagnant, and connotes a dead-end situation that progresses no more. No foreseeable future. It is trapped.
With its bilingual and dual meanings, “backwater” captures the reality I felt for my self and my generation and its irony. It is the complexities, ambivalences and the grayness between virtues and vices that this film attempts to capture of myself and my dear friends and peers.
Yes — this is mostly a solo team production. Mostly because while I will be producing, writing, filming, and editing the film, I have enlisted the four participants to collaborate with me in telling our generational stories as well as friends to help with marketing, post-production sound design and music.
Financially, I have received $300 from Academic Student Project award from Occidental College as well a generous loan from my parents to cover some of my early expenses.
The film is currently in its post-production phase, and is expected to be completed by late September. It will then be submitted to festivals and later on for online distribution.
The amount raised will be used for equipment rentals — including audio recording equipments, camera lenses and a monitor — purchasing storage hardwares and covering travel expenses. Additional money raised will be used for music and better sound design in post production, marketing and festival entry.
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About This Team
Kathy Ou is a bilingual writer, journalist and aspiring documentary filmmaker who grew up in the southern Chinese coastal city Shenzhen and came to Los Angeles, California to pursue her studies in Philosophy and Media, Arts & Culture (MAC) at Occidental College.
She wrote, directed and edited her first fiction short film when she was 15, and moved onto making and experimenting with all sorts of documentaries. As she plunged into the academe and swam in the ocean of theories, she made video essays once in a while, but has largely suspended her filmmaking activities. She last made a film four years ago in a film summer camp — excluding a desktop documentary she made last year during quarantine completely on a PC.
During the past year, she discovered the surprising similarities between filmmaking and writing in essay films, a unique creative medium that she seeks to explore and revitalize. She is excited to take her camera back to the streets again and using the film as a pretext for seeing some of her friends again.
Alexa Yichen Zhang is a producer/filmmaker who is passionate about building connections and solving problems. She grew up in China southern city Shenzhen where she found her interest in using visual storytelling to express and amplify diverse voices. As the head of high school television station, she has led over 15 short video productions covering short films, documentaries, and talkshows.
Lexa now studies Economics and Film Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, USA and plays an active role in the productions by the Wesleyan film community. In experinmental film courses, she was able to explore the time-based media in a different fashion and exhibited two of her works in the college gallery. She aims in applying technologies, such as data and programming, to the media industry and beyond.
She joins the "backwater" production as producer for her alignment with the director's experiences and emotions. She wants to replenish publich understanding of the younger Chinese generation with more diverse stories about their generational and distinct personal struggles despite their life's seeming glamor. She hopes this initimate portraits of the youth can resonate with not only the older generations but also the world.
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