September 8, 2015
SCA Alumni Stories: Guan Xi
A native of Beijing, China, Guan Xi ’15 brought her award-winning photography skills and passion for filmmaking to SCA as a MFA Production student. She was the co-Director of Photography for the documentary Looking at the Stars directed by Alexandre Peralta ’14, which won this year’s Student Academy Award for Best Documentary. In addition, Xi’s thesis project Mandala has been accepted and awarded by several film festivals. Xi recently reflected on her time at SCA and shared her creative and technical growth as a filmmaker.
What pushed you to pursue an education and career in the cinematic arts? I am especially attracted to cinematic arts because I believe the camera is my weapon. No other medium can simultaneously combine the strength of language, text, sound, image, and music; cinema has allowed me to express and release all of my desires. Life and the female experience are two themes with which I am constantly obsessed. I can never simply “make up” stories or narratives, but with these themes I can piece together my own experiences and filter them through my fears and desires. I love writing, photography, singing, dancing, and performing; film has the unique ability to summon up all these elements, altogether in harmony. SCA is a place where I have been able to receive the best possible cinematic education, and push myself to become a truly professional filmmaker.
What was your fondest memory of your time at SCA? Every moment in production was breathtaking, when group members could cooperate closely from preparation through post-production. No matter whether it was discussion, suggestion, or argument, we could always cultivate our rapport, cherishing every inside joke. There were also many valuable treasures in production classes, where I learned to enjoy the typical routine: develop script, revise drafts, review each week’s dailies during shooting, and editing. And, I’ll always cherish the community within SCA where fantastic filmmakers give suggestions and critiques of each other’s works.
How has your time at SCA impacted your work and vision as a filmmaker? My studies at SCA have proven to be the single biggest maturation of my life, consummating my knowledge about film with my personal development. When I was back in China, I produced several unprofessional short films. I had no idea about anything like film permits or liability insurance. Back then I would carry a camera on the back of a moving motorcycle, shooting at night while being chased by policemen on the streets of Beijing. I was scratched on the cheek by a swashing glass, all part of the romance of production. I can still remember my initial aversion to SCA’s policy of green light meetings, safety rules, and endless forms. I thought this system was filled with demons that served only to waste my time and kill my passion and creativity. Nevertheless, I began to understand the logic behind it. The entire professional practice and safety awareness education is the only method to protect our creativity from being hurt, to guarantee the production process, and to improve shooting efficiency.
Creatively, I pay greater attention to storytelling skills, which ensures a better product. I have transformed from a photographer into a full-fledged cinematographer. Now, I can also focus not just on documentary or experimental film, as I once limited myself, but on more conventional feature films as well.
While working on your thesis film Mandala, what were some of the biggest challenges you confronted? Tibet is a gorgeous place with the highest elevated plateau in the world. Under these conditions it’s extremely difficult for a non-Tibetan, unaccustomed to the thin air and lack of oxygen, to do any kind of strenuous activity. Such conditions were especially challenging to our camera team, grip team, and actors. Even simple movements were physically taxing for all of us.
In this film, we wanted to show authentic Tibetan life, real Tibetan people, and Tibetan culture to the audience. Except Helena and Paul, all the other leading actors are real Tibetans. Lead actor Duobujie is one of the most famous award-winning Tibetan actors in China. After hearing about my story, he was hesitant to join the cast because he still inherited the antiquated Tibetan belief that women are inferior to men, and that a female could not reincarnate as Buddha. Fortunately, we were able to persuade him to take part. The leading actors in the movie are all famous and award-winning professionals, with whom we could talk about characters and story. They continuously enlightened me to understand the roles more deeply.
As a director and cinematographer, how do you hope your work impacts its audience? I’d love to target human fear and avoidance, to help people find a way out of the cycle of fear. The magic of motion pictures is to constantly give power to the expression of emotions. Compared to theatre, movies have the capacity of breaking space, time, and logic, and by using the angle and size of the shots, directors can deliver their own views. Compared with literature, where a reader can get lost in philosophy, the visual confrontation of film keeps it more urgent and emotional. In this way, I hope to convey big ideas with a strong point of view while keeping my work accessible.
What advice do you have for current SCA students and other SCA alumni? Use any resources and networking you can get from SCA, as those are priceless. By meeting people and developing relationships, you can enlighten each other, and even find ideal collaborators for the rest of your career and life. Never forget your original intentions or reasons for coming here. Never stop reading and thinking, or you will always be a normal audience and lose the joy and beauty of films. Never lose yourself or disobey the rules; instead, if you dance with them, you will become a better filmmaker.
What’s next for you? I will pursue cinematography as my career, while still holding onto directing as my dream. I intend to continue shooting all kinds of short and long form films. Hopefully, all of the movies I have shot can be invited to film festivals. Ideally, I can raise funds for a long feature length version of Mandala. I am also currently developing another script about Tibet, which might be started next year. Additionally, I am co-writing a youth movie about a woman living under mainstream, traditional Chinese values.