In Conversation With... Lilly Zhuang

Lilly Zhuang is a London-based filmmaker and master’s student following the Film and Philosophy pathway at King’s College London. Her short film “As Far As Our Eyes Can See” is nominated for Best Documentary as part of BFI’s Future Film Festival 2021. Here she talks with Gillian Coyne, guest writer for Miss En Scene, about her recent nomination, the value of a liberal arts approach to storytelling, and advice for other young filmmakers.

Gillian – Miss En Scene: Can you talk a little bit about yourself? It could be the context for New York City, what you studied and study, where you’re from, etc.

Lilly: I’m Lilly! I’m 21 years old; I’m currently doing my master’s at King’s in Film and Philosophy. I moved to London a couple years ago for my undergrad in Liberal Arts, so it’s a bit more interdisciplinary – it’s where I kind of played around with a lot of different things while I majored in film.

I moved from the Netherlands, which is where my parents moved to back in the nineties, so I was born and raised there. They’re both from Sichuan in China, so I always joke about how I’m kind of all over the place, because then I moved to London, and then I went to New York for study abroad. So the question “Where are you from?” is always a bit complicated and interesting actually. A lot of my work, whether it’s photography or poetry or film, centers around the complexities of identity and the bittersweetness of it all.

The film I submitted to the festival, “As Far as Our Eyes Can See,” I shot in 2019. When I was in New York, I was watching a lot of things and reading a lot of articles about the underground film and cinema in New York, and also just some experimental filmmakers. And after watching stuff from Jonas Mekas, and also Chantal Akerman when she was living there actually, also Stan Brakhage’s films. I started to think about what I wanted to do for myself, and reading about Jonas Mekas’s visual diary, I started to question the definition of a diary as something that is personal and first person singular, and I tried to make it first person plural. So, considering the fact that I was really aware of me being around all these people in New York, and how my experience of New York was never going to be detached from the people around me, because I spent 24/7 with my group of friends there. And it just made me think “Oh, when you think about who you are, and what your identity is, you can’t just stop at where your fingers can reach. That’s not the limit, you know, it’s everyone around you and everything around you.” I asked my friends then to help me with my project.

I didn’t tell them much at the beginning; I just told them to film anything they wanted to film. I gave them my camera. It was anything they thought was interesting or anything that caught their eyes. They did that for 24 hours. Four people did it, and then me, and I collected a bunch of other materials: little notes they had written me or little quotes they wrote, so I’d have their handwriting. And then I – kind of chasing the idea of collecting traces – even put their hands in the film. It flashes by really quickly, but you see little traces of their hands; it’s because I put their hands in a scanner.

I wanted five people to weave a tapestry of experience to tell our story and tell the audience, or even just ourselves, who we were at that point in time in that location. It’s about us trying to grasp onto a certain period of time, which is impossible, so I think a lot of production and editing was seeped in this sense of nostalgia for something that you’re still experiencing. You’re in the middle of it, but you know you’re going to miss it.

G: How does it feel to watch it now, almost two years later?

L: I was watching it, and I just felt very removed from it, because it’s been such a long time. I guess you’re very aware of the distance between the person you are now and the person you were back then. But still, there is an alliance between the two of you, because you were that person after all, at some point. Basically the ways you’ve changed become very tangible, whether that’s change in a good way, or something you’re sad that you’ve lost…and I’m also just very happy I decided to make that film, because I wouldn’t really know how to immediately jump back to those memories a different way.

G: You had said that you work with photography and poetry. What was the order, did one lead to the next or have you always dabbled in mixed medias?

L: My parents are both artists, still working artists, so they mainly work in with paint and they make sculptures. There are various installation pieces that they’ve worked on. Growing up, there were so many artists around me, at all times, and they were always very eager to tell me about their media. And it was never just one, they always mixed things up. I remember this one guy told me that, “If you think about it, there are different media, but only because we made them so.” So to not limit yourself to one medium has always been how my parents have worked and how people around them have approached their art.

For me, I think it all happened simultaneously. Sometimes I don’t touch my poems for a year, and then when I’m filming something, I go back to my poems, because they all flow into each other. And I love combining them, as I did with the film.

G: So was that your original writing at the last introspective written segment of the film?

L: Yeah so that’s one of the only things I actually wrote in my journal, apart from having scraps and pieces glued in there, I actually wrote that at the end of my stay there when the first of our friend group was going home for the summer.

G: Would you move back to New York City?

L: I was actually thinking about moving back! I did go back once in November 2019, right before COVID became a thing. I still think that eventually, maybe in a couple years, I’ll move back to New York for a while, but right now I feel like I found my place in London, and I want to start developing myself there. Once I’ve come to a point where I have that flexibility of moving around or continuing my work in New York, then I’ll do that. There’s something about New York and film that’s just very special.

I was also reading Just Kids by Patti Smith when I was there. It was so surreal, because you’re reading about the same city, but the city’s changed already, but you can still kind of feel it around you.

G: Have you worked with BFI before? And have you worked on the festival circuit?

L: No this is the first festival that I’ve submitted anything to…yay! I haven’t worked on that many actual short films, I’ve helped friends and I went to UCLA over the summer, and I made a short there, but this is the first project that I’ve felt is actually mine. It was like my debut, and I felt very confident, because I could see myself in the work. So, exciting!

G: Do you think you want to pursue filmmaking as a career, or what are your long-term professional aspirations?

L: The dream is to be a filmmaker. Often when I say I want to be a filmmaker people ask me, “Well, why didn’t you go to film school straight after high school?” And I did think about that back then, but for me, it was very important to do Liberal Arts actually, because I then got to do literature (English lit.), some political science, world history…just so many things that I was doing there to kind of learn more about what it means to be. That sounds a bit pretentious, but you know, to build on top of what other people have written and to have more in your head and more in your heart to be able to tell stories that mean something to other people, to speak to them.

Yes, in film school you can learn how to use a camera, but how do you learn how to use a camera on your terms? And that is built on experience. I didn’t want to go to film school immediately, because I wanted to study first. I have done a lot of philosophy in the meantime now, and it’s like an existential crisis every week! But it’s all been worth it, you know? I feel like it was very important to attune to certain environments and milieux, and I want to keep on combining philosophy and literature and everything that I’m already doing with my film. Still read a lot of poetry. I think I’m so used to reading academic articles now, I might as well keep doing it, because it is important for certain kinds of storytelling.

Especially when I was in art history as well, to know what to do with your own films, and to know how to weave different narratives, and to experiment…I like experimental film and I like to experiment with film. It’s almost as if, if you don’t, you can’t really push convention. It’s almost as if convention has already been dictated, so there are a lot of limits, and the only way around it is to experiment, to combine different things.

G: What advice would you give to young(er) or aspiring filmmakers?

L: I think what a lot of people would say it just to grab a camera and film things. I think a little while ago I was very intimidated with starting a project, because I thought, “Well, I don’t really have the budget. I don’t really know what story I could tell, like what’s there that I could say that anybody would find interesting?” What I’ve learned is that anything that’s personal is interesting and is worth telling. Whether that “personal” is one person or a community, it rings true with so many more people, and it’s a way of finally translating difference into a common ground.

You can make films with no money! As long as you have a camera and scraps of paper or something - it’s put everything in, whatever you have and can get. Because there’s always a story. Sometimes I walk down the street, and I just see these faces, and I get overwhelmed with the idea of all these faces. They’re all just stories; there’s so much out there. I’ll never know all of them, but I can start, you know, somewhere.

G: What’s something you would change about the film industry, for better or for worse?

L: There’s a lot of things that need to change in the film industry. Where to start? The most obvious thing to say is diversity, but also to think about how complex that term is. What you see a lot is certain projects that are supposedly more diverse, but you see that actually still it’s the same people producing the same film. They add one character – a side character – and it’s almost a caricature of an entire community. Or people think that just because we have one female director here, that probably means that we’re fine now, but no. It’s not good enough. It’s not just some boxes you can tick, which is why I said before: anyone can make a film, if you pick up a camera.

And for me it was partly the realisation that I could be someone who makes a film, and when I’ve made a film, I can encourage other people to collaborate with me or something. And then they’ll realise they can make films. Because film is so inherently collaborative, it would be beautiful if filmmakers could help aspiring filmmakers around them, the voices that aren’t loud enough yet or don’t get the space to talk.

At some point, even if you think about it in terms of wanted to tell new stories, you’re going to run out. And where to look? I know where to look! Look at the filmmakers of color and Indigenous communities, they’ll have plenty of stories they weren’t allowed to tell before. It’s out there, and we just gotta find them and encourage them to do what they were always meant to do basically.

In short, what I’ve been really trying to teach myself and focus on is to go out there, find your own community, and just be loud, really, because why would you be quiet? It’s so much more fun to be loud. And make it look pretty! Film is very pretty, you know, there’s a lot of things you can do.


Lilly Zhuang’s short film will be available for screening through February 21st, 2021 as part of the BFI Future Film Festival. As Far As The Eyes Can See is available now here! All films are free to watch online.

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