August 2, 2018

Documentary Filmmaker With Many Stories To Tell

By Phenia Hovsepyan

2017 MFA graduate Yongle Wang is already a seasoned documentary filmmaker. A writer, director, and editor with a unique perspective on the world, Wang has found a true passion for addressing large social issues through the lens of personal stories. She recalls having a shy disposition, constantly reading books to gain a sense of the world, and how “documentary challenged me to not only observe the world, but engage with it.”

Originally from Nanjing, China, Wang briefly lived in Canada with her academic parents at the age of eleven. “I really liked the change in the educational environment, especially the art and music classes,” Wang says. It was from that early exposure that Wang later decided to apply for scholarships to attend American liberal arts colleges, choosing to study English at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. There, she took a documentary class, finding a new way of connecting to the stories she had spent her life reading, writing, and analyzing. “I was very intrigued by the class. Even though I had never done any sort of production before, it immediately aligned with storytelling, and made me engage with the community,” Wang says.

Wang’s discovery of the simultaneously personal and yet very universal stories she could tell through documentary film took her back to China in 2012, where she filmed her undergraduate thesis project, Some of Us. In it she explored what it meant to be a feminist in her home country, looking at the perspectives of college students, academics, and rural farmers. “I wanted to extend a conversation about feminism,” Wang says about her film, which was screened at the China Women’s Film Festival.

Throughout her undergraduate career, as Wang pursued her English degree and continued exploring documentary film, she realized that there was still so much about filmmaking as a mechanism for storytelling she wanted to learn. “There are so many stories that already exist in the world that I cannot convey in my own personal writing, because they are not a part of my own personal experience,” Wang says. “In my last year of college, I felt like I wanted to learn more about film. I was not getting the exposure I needed elsewhere, so I applied to film school!” 

Wang came to the USC School for Cinematic Arts (SCA) for her graduate education in the Film and TV Production Division, and there, organically gravitated to documentary film editing. “The faculty here were incredibly supportive, and with their help I found my way back to documentary through editing in for the 547 Production class, a course reserved for the top filmmakers at the top-ranked School,” Wang says. “I came back to why I wanted to tell stories. I took the class, and then became the TA for the class until I graduated!”

As Wang came into her own, working with the faculty and students in the 547 class, she began editing one statement-making documentary after another. Among them are There Goes the Neighborhood, a story of one African American family’s struggle with the gentrification of their upper-middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood. It screened at the LA Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, American Documentary Film Festival, DOCUTAH, and won Best Documentary at First Look 2017. Wang also worked on Finding Home, Episode Brandon, the personal and touching story of a young attorney who is coping with the life he left behind in China to find an accepting community in Los Angeles. It screened at DOC NYC, Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, OUTFEST, Asian American International Film Festival, and won Best Documentary at First Look 2018. The instruction of SCA’s incredible faculty led Wang to work as an assistant editor on Foster, a documentary feature in partnership with HBO, directed by three-time Academy Award winning filmmaker Mark Harris. “The connections I made at SCA are the foundation of the work I do now. My directing professor, Mark Harris, hired me to work on his film. That helped me to get to know more people in the industry, and moving forward I know that I will benefit from the relationships I have cultivated,” Wang says. Wang is currently editing Sundance-winning filmmaker and SCA professor Lisa Leeman’s new documentary feature, Trans*Formend, which recently received a Sundance Production Grant.

In looking back at her time at USC, Wang expresses that, “I learned so much it was almost a re-learning of how to tell a story. It was an amazing experience for me, to understand that the way that I see something is not necessarily how other people see it. In all the rounds of editing and feedback I learned how to be humble and not to assume that I am always right. I learned how to collaborate, and how to always push myself to be better.”

When thinking back to what she wished she had known before starting film school, Wang’s advice is, “Don’t take yourself too seriously! Know what you want, but be relaxed and don’t get so focused on one shoot or one project that you lose sight of the bigger picture in your life and in the world. Although there are times when you need to hold your ground, there is no one right way of telling a story, there is no one right way of doing anything.”

For Yongle Wang, the bigger picture that she hopes to illuminate with her work is that, “When you take away all the labels, the core human experience of loneliness, rejection, feeling angry, wanting something, not getting something, are all the same.” Wang has found a perfect mechanism in documentary filmmaking for telling character-driven social issue stories. For her, “The issue of the film is grounded in something bigger in reality, something that is important for us to see and know. There is a sensibility and complexity that is shown in a more individual story and character, it is a window into someone else’s life, and I find that irresistible!” In all of the projects Wang has worked on thus far, the most universal of human experiences she has encountered is, “A sense of pain. People do many different things because they are hurting. They act out in anger, isolate themselves, and do things that are ridiculous. There is a very deep desire to deeply connect and an inability to do so. I see a lot of it, and I understand how it feels when I encounter it.”

Wang is able to recognize and illuminate the personal struggles of many different groups of people because she finds the commonality in her own life. “A part of it comes from being an English major. I have always loved learning about different kinds of stories and experiences,” she says. 

A much less common point of connection and empathy comes from the life lessons Wang internalized from her academic father. “My dad is an English professor with a focus on African American literature. He has introduced me to a wide array of writers, and he relates to the African American experience,” Wang says. She adds that, “Although the circumstances in history were very different, they were also very personal to him. My father is a really great influence on my life.” Wang believes her father planted an interest in seeking out marginalized stories and illuminating them in ways that unify the personal with the global. “Growing up I realized that there are people who are not represented, you do not see their stories. My parents have taught me to be educated about the world, about life and the struggles in society, and I think that set the stage for me being drawn to those types of stories in my adult life,” she says. Wang recalls observing the changing dynamics of the community she grew up in, and how she “saw all sorts of people growing up. Low income families, families who are struggling with disabilities, families that were succeeding, and it all made me very curious about people and what their lives are like.”

There are still many stories for Yongle Wang to tell as she moves forward in her career. Her hope is to always bring great projects into the world, and have a role in illuminating stories that need to be told. “I want to be a part of good stories, here and in China. There are a lot of very important narratives that have not been told in China, and perspectives that have not been seen,” she says. When thinking about her future as a filmmaker in the documentary world, Wang’s hope is that, “People take the time to watch, listen, observe, and understand. I hope people expand their perspective and awareness, and achieve more understanding between one another. 

Wang has already embraced her unique role and responsibility as an artist, saying that, “As documentary filmmakers, we are trying to recognize and then dissect a phenomenon, so that we can see the different aspects of a system. The power of a good story is that it brings light to a new experience, a new way of being, and it is something an audience can grab onto and walk away with.”

With the impactful work that Yongle Wang has already made in her young career, we are incredibly excited to see what stories she continues to tell! “I am constantly reminded not to be satisfied with what I have done!” she says.