"I love exploring depth and complexity, and we often hold many identities, realities, contradictions, and dreams. It is inspiring to me to really get to know someone. To know their darkness, hopes, quirkiness, weakness and strength, which helps me to check my bias and assumptions about people, and honor humanity in a more honest and sincere way."
If there's one word that I can use to describe Xiaolu Wang's films it would be reclaimation. Her work is brave, honest, and real, yet I can feel a gentleness to her style as well. She doesn't allow her films to simily gaze upon her subjects, but rather her films carry an active voice. Xiaolu shows through her work that film can help you speak, film can help you stand up, and film can help you connect with others. Being a filmmaker is more than telling stories, it's also about saying who you are. So with that, I admire Xiaolu Wang. I always looking forward to her work!
Xiaolu Wang is a self-taught filmmaker. She identifies as a Chinese transplant who grew up in the Muslim autonomous region in Northwestern China, now resides in the occupied indigenous homelands of the Dakota people, the twin cities. She believes in using lived experiences as materials for her films and for directing. Dumpling 饺子 is her first narrative short that blends traditional narrative with magical realism to reflect on the struggle to belong. It won Audience Choice Award at the Altered Esthetics Film Festival in Minneapolis, and is an Official Selection in Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and Tacoma Film Festival. This year, she is developing a documentary with the support of the New Angles Documentary Fellowship through Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, and is a recipient of the Next Step Fund from The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council of Minnesota, and a recipient of the 2019 Minnesota Film, Video and Digital Production Grant from The Jerome Foundation.
In this interview, Xiaolu shares about joy, The Creative Independent, her recent films, among many other important things. Read and admire on!
Happy New Year to you and Happy Birthday to Xiaolu!
Jes: Tell me about your films and filmmaking approach. When did you first connect to filmmaking as an artistic medium?
Xiaolu: Filmmaking is a unique language to me, like advanced-level Chinese and things I can’t articulate in either Chinese or English, like music and hip-pop dance and poetry, like religion and cooking and surgery and sex, like time-traveling and illumination and magic tricks, but not exactly any of these things. Roland Barthes says “Two languages cancel each other out, so we need a third one.” Filmmaking to me is the third language I was desperately missing when I can’t translate my thoughts and experiences with my native tongue or a second language. I found films when I first immigrated to America and had to catch up with English. Watching films with subtitles was my best tool at learning English and getting along with my long-separated mother.
Your films have a portraiture quality - capturing often a single person. What inspires you most about exploring “the person” in your work?
I love exploring depth and complexity, and we often hold many identities, realities, contradictions, and dreams. It is inspiring to me to really get to know someone. To know their darkness, hopes, quirkiness, weakness and strength, which helps me to check my bias and assumptions about people, and honor humanity in a more honest and sincere way.
You are a recent Documentary Fellow at SPNN. What has that experience been like for you and what you been working on for them?
Being a freelance filmmaker and making my own paths in filmmaking means it’s ever more important for me to find community and stay connected. SPNN offers production support and mentoring resources and they are always providing opportunities and programs to help emerging filmmakers to have higher achievement in their filmmaking career. To me, I can’t thank SPNN enough for making space for filmmakers like me, who needs accountability in achieving my vision and practice sustainability for my projects and career. They push me to apply for fellowships and grants to develop my project further, they connect us to different documentary filmmakers who have vastly different styles and knowledge and approaches and work on different topics. They help me see a different possibility in myself and my project.
I met peers who are exploring the most pressing issues in our families and communities. We see on screen, footage of each storyteller revealing themselves in the most vulnerable light to serve the story. I was chosen to be a part of the cohort along with my partner-in-crime, a visionary cinematographer Tahiel Jimenez. We produced 16min of a feature-to-be documentary The Subversive Sirens, and I am just awarded by the Jerome Foundation a 30K production grant to develop it further.
Congrats on the grant, Xiaolu. That’s so exciting! I watched the trailer for The Subversive Sirens and it looks amazing. I'm cuious, do you practice in other mediums beyond filmmaking?
A recent love is taiko drumming and dancing on the street. I love the intention and dedication and repetition it requires to play taiko. My teacher once said, “you have to show up to taiko for at least twenty years and then you can say you are playing taiko.” I want to be able to say that about filmmaking. Dancing has always been a practice to me about vulnerability and accessing my joy. I found in my notes recently what I wrote about joy.
Joy is reliable,
Dumpling is your latest film? What is it about? Where can folks see it?
Dumpling is a short film based on my lived experience of moving from China to a predominantly white, rural American town when I was 14. The story takes place on Xiao Xing’s first day of high school after the move, where she begins to feel othered and isolated in her public school cafeteria. She preserves her identity by eating dumpling she brought from home. Dumpling blends traditional narrative with magic realism to reflect on the struggle to belong. It is currently in the film festival circuit, and I hope to release it online in 2020. There are two upcoming screening opportunities in 2020, one in January with the Twin Cities Film Festival, and one in February at the Indigenous Roots, which is a bigger celebration with other artists and friends and family. Please follow https://www.facebook.com/dumplingshortfilm/ for announcements.
What are the challenges you face as an artist?
I can isolate myself easily and not share what I actually go through. I get distracted by giving my energy and my power to things that take me for granted. I struggle big time with perfectionism, which cause me to procrastinate and miss opportunities that could’ve helped me grow further. I struggle with balancing ambition and capacity. I let uncertainty and my comfort zones prevent me from taking bold steps. I am highly self-conscious, so that means I am in my head, in my head, in my head all the time.
What do you think you need most as an artist?
Discipline. I have to be rigorous with setting up structures in my life, being specific with my goals, and taking actions to align with my vision.
What do you love about being an artist?
I love the ability to make something out of nothing. Being an artist is being subversive, magical, vulnerable, and honest all of the time. What artists do is transformation work, liberation work, humanity work, dissent work, and social work. I love that all I am learning to do as an artist is using my voice.
Accessing resources like grants, calls for art, and friends are a big part of being an artist. What kind of resources have you used?
I’ve been loving this online platform called The Creative Independent. It’s a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for creative people. They publish free zines on being healthy as a creative, dealing with anxiety as a creative, making a living as a creative, and finding your voice as a creative.
I love the Artist Way books, there are always a good reference to have if I need inspiration or momentum.
Friends and networks is where I get gigs and opportunities, I love deep personal connections and also many intersectional organizations like SPNN, FilmNorth, Springboard for the Arts.
I have never heard of The Creative Independent! Thanks for sharing about it. What a great resource! Speaking of online stuff, where can we find you online?
Instagram: personal account @x140lu
film blog @erotic.lens
Are you working on something new?
I am on a journey of studying cinematography for the next three months. I want to learn how cinematographers think, plan, and communicate. I want to get more familiar with different aspects of filmmaking in order to elevate my abilities, skills, and effectiveness as a filmmaker.
I am really excited about all of the projects you are working on, Xiaolu. Thank you so much for answering my questions!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.