TRAGEDY AT 12 I was born in 1985, in a very small, remote village in Jiangxi province. My dad was a huge influence on me; he was a Chinese literature teacher and a great storyteller. He wrote a lot, and he encouraged me to write; encouraged me to be a storyteller, too. We were the best of friends. But my dad passed away when I was 12. He was just 34 years old. He had had a heart problem. Because of the poor health facilities in our village he didn't get good health care. He wouldn't have died if he had better living conditions or if my family had a little bit more money. His death had a huge impact on my life. When I was young, I believed everyone dies in their 30s. I always thought that I would die in my 30s. So that gave me a very interesting philosophy of living, and from then on I thought I had to live my life twice or three times as meaningfully in order to get back the time that was taken from my dad. I've come to the realisation now that I probably won't die when I'm 34 but still I want every minute of my life to be meaningful.
DROPOUT TO DOCUMENTARIES All our financial support was gone after my dad died. We had built up a huge debt to get him medical treatment in the last years of his life. So my mum said we did not have the money to send me to high school or to college - I had a younger brother, who was eight, and my mum said he had to go to school; he's a boy. So I went to a teacher-training vocational school and I became a teacher when I was 16, at an elementary school. I was probably the youngest teacher in the city. But I always wanted to go to college, so when I was 19, I applied for a scholarship to study at a continuing education programme in Nanchang (the capital of Jiangxi province) - it's meant for housewives to get a diploma. Luckily the college shared a campus with the Normal University and I would go and ask the professors for permission to sit in their classes. From there, I applied to go to graduate school at Shanghai University, to study English literature. After I graduated, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do. I wanted to be a storyteller, I wanted to be a writer; that was always my dream, but you can't be a writer overnight.
My dad always wanted to go out and see the world but because of his disease and his background he never left Jiangxi province. I applied and got accepted at a media studies graduate programme at Ohio University (in the United States) and, after that, to a programme on documentary filmmaking at New York University.
SEX, SPIES AND VIDEOTAPE In 2013, I wanted to go back to China to make a film (as part of a college course). I always wanted to make a film about health care because of what happened to my dad. I wanted to make a film like Michael Moore's Sicko, but in China it's very difficult to get access (to hospitals, to film) so my plan B was sex workers. Growing up, I saw a lot of women who did not have access to education and some of them ended up as sex workers. When they came back to the village they were discriminated against. But the way I saw it was that they did not have a choice; the problem is with the system. I was aware that Ye Haiyan (the activist also known as Hooligan Sparrow) was campaigning on that issue so I went to see her when I arrived in China. She was planning a protest in this Hainan case. It was all over the news and I knew the real story (a school principal and local official were accused of raping six girls, aged 11 to 14) wasn't being reported. On the first day of the protest, the activists tried to discourage me, saying it was dangerous. But I was naive, I did not know how dangerous it was.
FEAR ON FILM I couldn't use a tripod so almost the entire film was shot hand-held, outside. Even my small DSLR camera was too obvious. We were followed almost constantly. I saw people get beaten because they were filming on their cellphones. What I filmed was much less than what I saw. Eventually, I bought these special glasses with a micro camera inside from Taobao. The quality was OK but the trouble was they looked weird, not like regular glasses, so you would be suspicious if you saw someone wearing huge glasses like that. Even in public you are not safe. I saw the secret police beat activists but I wasn't beaten. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I was a woman; they saw me as a young, innocent girl. They were more aggressive towards the men. But I was afraid; the fear is that you don't know what's going to happen. There were times I was surrounded by people threatening that if I didn't hand over my camera then they would beat me to death. Passers-by just ignored us. Even though they saw what was going on they did not want to intervene. It's a very helpless feeling knowing nobody can save you.
There was also anger. That anger was stronger than the fear. But then there's another fear; that if I don't document this, if I don't film this, then I can't get the story out. There is a fear the story will never be known. And we will just suffer from this injustice - and that fear is much greater than the fear of being arrested.
HOMELESS IN UTAH My next film is about a young guy born into a Mormon family in [the American state of] Utah. The son got into drug dealing and eventually became homeless and lived on the streets. I lived on the streets with him for a month to document his life, to see what freedom really means and to find out the balance between personal and social responsibility through his life. Hopefully it will be released at the end of this year.