This past weekend found the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in full swing in Los Angeles, Koreatown, and Long Beach. This year’s festival goes through Sunday, May 20th, with an array of remarkable narrative and documentary films being shown. One of the festivals’ standout documentaries is Restoring the Light, the first feature from festival alum Carol Liu. Restoring the Light is the inspirational story of the population of rural China, many of whom lack basic healthcare and suffer great infection and disease, despite making up sixty percent of the country’s population. The film’s subject, Dr. Zhang Xubin puts his own resources into helping those in rural China including Wang Rongrong, a twenty year-old woman attempting to overcome a bone infection to attend college, Yuan Guihua, Rongrong’s grandmother who has gradually lost her vision to cataracts, and Li Juncheng, a ten year-old boy who hopes to overcome his blindness as a result of untreated illness, so that he may one day be able to fulfill his dream of being a truck driver. I recently enjoyed a conversation with Liu at the festival, in anticipation of her film being shown. Here’s what Liu shared with me about gaining access to film in rural China, her desire to find inspirational stories in difficult circumstances, and crafting Restoring the Light.
Jackson Truax: The film shows you were obviously very passionate about going to China and filming the stories of the disabled and those in rural areas without access to healthcare. Where did that passion come from, and why was it so important to you?
Carol Liu: From a very young age, I always wanted to go back to China. I was born in America. But I always felt this calling to bring Chinese stories to a world audience. I feel that rural China is not represented enough in a very diverse way. Usually the stories are more ethnographic… In this one, I just wanted to show this budding humanitarian consciousness in China. And motivate and inspire more people to get involved in their communities. For a western audience, I also wanted to give them another perspective on China.
JT: Once you went back to rural China, how did you find the people that came to be the subjects of Restoring the Light?
CL: It was very unexpected… I went through [The China Foundation for Disabled Persons]. They provided the access to go to Ningxia, which is a very remote place. Not many foreigners are allowed to just roam around there. When I got there, we went to different houses, different villages, and asked different people about their experiences… In the case of the boy, Li Juncheng, he was just standing at the gate [as we were] visiting another family. He was waving at me, and singing a song at us. He was such a cheery, bright kid. I really, really, wanted to know what his story was going to be.
JT: Why is it that foreigners aren’t allowed to go there? It is because of the sheer remoteness of the area, or due to infection and disease?
CL: Mainly the first reason… It’s in a rather sensitive area…there’s some military presence there. It’s just not a place they really open up to foreign visitors… It’s hard to get to. There’re not many roads. It’s very sandy… We had to off-road for several hours from the nearest town.
JT: Documentarians are always looking for great characters and great stories and great access. At what point did you know you had all the elements to make a compelling film?
CL: It was the story of these people that really pushed me along through some of the hardest times… They gave me some much needed inspiration, to know that they had gone through such difficult circumstances, and yet still had all this hope within them. I really felt it was my duty to finish this project, so more people could see them and know about them. I just couldn’t imagine shutting it down and not finishing this film, because of the fact that they had opened their lives to me. They really had something important to say.
JT: When did you connect with Dr. Zhang Xubin?
CL: I really wanted to look at the perspective of a health-care professional. I met several different doctors in rural China and went to county hospitals… Those doctors were great, too. They did great work. But none of them had the passion that Dr. Zhang had. When I heard about Dr. Zhang and the fact that he had donated so much of his own personal time and resources into this kind of work. I really felt he was a role model for other people. It was clear that he had that enthusiasm.
JT: How did you decide how much of the film should focus on Dr. Zhang and how much focus to put on the patients and their stories?
CL: That was pretty hard. For me, it was always the through-line of the doctor. He was our entry into this world. I really wanted to have him bring out this narrative. Because I didn’t want to simply show these characters and their situations. I wanted there to be a sense of change and a sense of possibility with what the doctor’s doing, coming into this area. That was the thing that guided the structure.
JT: In addition to Rongrong and Guihua and Juncheng, did you film a lot of other people in the rural areas? Was there anyone you wanted to include but couldn’t?
CL: As soon as I met these few characters I said, “They’re going to be in the film.” I did meet some other people along the way who also have very interesting stories. But I felt they didn’t have that sense of hope and enthusiasm toward their own lives. I wanted…to have a film that was able to inspire others and not be so much a film about negativity and difficulty.
JT: With documentarians, there’s always the process of “finding the film” and being open to where your subject takes you. How did Restoring the Light evolve as you were filming it?
CL: When we went to follow-up on the latest trip with [Li Juncheng], a lot of the circumstances…were not things that I expected at all. I think that’s the power of documentaries. You never know what life will throw at you. Sometimes life is more incredible than fiction. In that case, I really didn’t expect the boy to be in that situation, and for that to be part of the ending of the film. It was important to include that section, and to let audiences know what really happened. If more people paid attention, or if more people were aware of what was going on in rural China, I think it could prevent millions of these potential cases. And it’s so common. Their stories are so common. At the same time, they really are unique human individuals. I hope that people can empathize, just on a human level.
JT: The beginning of the film states that sixty percent of the Chinese population lives in these rural areas. Of that sixty percent, how many of their lives are represented by what’s shown in the film?
CL: I think a very high number. The numbers are definitely changing on a daily basis in China. In fact, from the time that filming began until now, I believe that sixty percent has gone down. But, if you think about, even if it’s fifty percent, how many hundreds of millions of people that is… The general mentality towards disabilities needs a shift in China. I think people still view those who have disabilities at a distance. I really hope to close that distance.
JT: When you were in the process of filming the movie and spending time with the subjects, what did you see, or hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
CL: One thing that did initially drew me to the Rongrong and Grandma characters was the fact that we were so similar in many ways. It was amazing to me… I’m very close with my Grandmother. I’m also the oldest granddaughter. I, in fact, share the same Chinese name as her granddaughter… And the fact that I’m in the arts and that Rongrong wanted to be an artist too. It was just amazing to me how close we were in many ways, in terms of our lives, though we lived…in different parts of the world. And obviously in different circumstances.
JT: Li Juncheng is an interesting boy, like you mentioned, with big dreams and high aspirations. His big dream is to be a driver, and hopefully then become wealthy as a result. Do many people in rural China have those kinds of aspirations, and see a potential way out of their circumstance?
CL: Dr. Zhang is a great example. He came from rural China too. For most people there, the idea of education and college, that’s like their route to the outside world. That’s what Rongrong, the girl, actually ends up doing. But for Li Juncheng, he is so cutoff in his part of Ningxia, I think all he sees, the access to the outside world, are these drivers. So I think for him, he wanted to be a driver. I think it’s part of his environment.
JT: The film is 55 minutes, which is very long for a short and almost too short to be considered a feature. How did you decide on that running time? What are the benefits of it?
CL: I haven’t really encountered many benefits just yet. It’s actually been pretty hard, with festivals, programming and all of that. I’m hoping that length will be good for TV… I’m definitely looking forward to more educational distribution for the film… Really, we settled on that time because it was the best time for the film. I think that’s always the best decision for any movie.
JT: You’ve said that Restoring the Light is about “our shared human experience.” And the film makes that point, but very subtly. These stories are universal for people in America and the world. How did you decide how subtly to communicate that, and did you ever have to fight the temptation to make a more blatant statement about politics or healthcare in China or America?
CL: I often grappled with that issue. It was good that working with my editor [Walt Louie] reined me in. We would often share perspectives on this. In the end, I think the most powerful stories are ones where you connect on a human level. I didn’t want it to be didactic or political in any way. In fact, I find most films about China…are really very political. I wanted to veer away from that. So it was just more about our shared experience… I think that feeling is there. It doesn’t need to be explained or hit over the head.
JT: Beyond screening at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, do you know what opportunities audiences will have to seek out Restoring the Light?
CL: We are definitely still open to distribution…online, TV, etc. I really do hope it can reach more people. Especially [for] younger audiences, I think it has a lot to offer. We showed it at several international schools. The response was really overwhelming.
JT: If Restoring the Light gets widely seen and gets the acclaim it deserves, what’s the ultimate impact you hope the film might have, either on the audiences who see it, or America or China as a whole?
CL: Within China, I hope it can raise more awareness for people living in extreme conditions. For people in the cities, to be more aware of what’s going on in the countryside. Internationally, I really do hope it can help add to this channel of communication between the US and China and China and the West… There need to be more diverse stories coming out of China about China that the international audience can see.
JT: What’s next for you? Do you plan on making more stories about China for an international audience?
CL: Definitely. My next two or three ideas, they all take place within China. But I always try to explore something that has an international appeal and international sensibility. I think it’s important for a global understanding. Especially since China has become such an influential country… They’re actually all fiction. I feel that, it all depends on the story, and I feel that fiction would be a more appropriate way to tell them. One is a historical drama about painting, a European painter who goes to China in the 20th Century. Another one is an animated film about a dog in China… There’s a third idea. Those two are the more concrete ones at the moment.
Filed under: LiC Interview