Nanfu Wang: American dreams and myths

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 04/15/2019

Our second season of Science on Screen is in full swing, and on April 17, we hope you’ll join us for a screening of Nanfu Wang’s 2017 documentary I Am Another You, followed by a panel discussion on issues revolving around New Orleans homelessness.

Having recently seen Wang’s excellent third feature One Child Nation at Sundance, her work is fresh enough in my mind that I can call her the documentary filmmaker I’m most excited about today. The magic of her work doesn’t rely on her visual style, which is economical; instead, she steeps her own experience telling a story in the story itself, using that experience to uncover hidden truths.

I Am Another You is Wang’s second released feature, after 2016’s Hooligan Sparrow (True Orleans 2016), but it’s the first film she shot. As she explains in the film’s voiceover, after deciding to remain in the U.S. after film school, she spent time in Florida, where she met and filmed Dylan Olsen, a mystical and beguiling young man who was homeless by choice, his wanderings taking him to all corners (geographically and socially) of America, his idealism seemingly bottomless. Wang quickly tired of the lifestyle and lost touch with Dylan when she returned to China to film Hooligan Sparrow, her acclaimed documentary about a Chinese activist. When she returned to her Florida footage, she dug more deeply into Dylan’s romantically ascetic way of life. Uncovering details of his past and family life, she begins to understand that, with Dylan as with many of his peers, it results from dark underlying causes and is far more complex than meets the eye.

Throughout the film, Wang uses voiceover to detail her personal discoveries. Consistently analyzing her own filming experiences, Wang is uniquely able to tease out a powerful story, step by step: shooting, considering the footage and asking questions of it, answering those questions, and deepening the story. The way in which she identifies, asks, and addresses questions within a story is precise and notably without judgment (not unlike this engaging interview). She is not guileless, but is able to suggest powerful truths in a matter-of-fact way that makes them resonate all the more deeply.

As this synopsis illustrates, the film is inseparable from Wang’s own biography, as her background compliments her skill. She grew up in rural China with little access to education, left home to attend an urban high school, got into college in the U.S., and then attended film school at NYU. Her filmmaking is inquisitive, resourceful, and builds on itself in frank and effective ways. In both Hooligan Sparrow and I Am Another You, she revisits footage that has been seen earlier in the film, reframing the initial story to reflect deepened insight. In One Child Nation, while exploring China’s one-child policy, under which she was born, she revisits previous interviews to reveal startling truths about not only these people but her entire generation. Wang’s interaction with her own filmmaking process is often unique and fascinating.

In I Am Another You, she ultimately gains powerful insight into issues of mental illness in America, and the ways in which the American dream can be a mirage, merely a buttress against insurmountable personal strife. Her personal realization of this in the film carries surprising drama and genuine sadness. Wang’s ability to probe both a subject and her relationship to it make her one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.

I Am Another You is presented as part of Science On Screen, a grant administered by the Coolidge Corner Theater with major support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The film will be followed by a panel discussion on homelessness in New Orleans with / Times-Picayune investigative journalists Richard A. Webstar and Katherine Sayre, along with guests to be announced. (TB)

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