Interview with Yi Cui on “Through the Looking Glass”
This piece is part of a series. As a small means of solidarity with curators, critics and creators, during this extraordinary moment of crisis and confinement, dGenerate Films is opening our doors to those interested in writing and engaging with our collection. Documentary filmmaker Miasarah Lai is also the co-founder of Ethnocine Collecive, a podcaster for Bad Feminists Making FIlms, and a community coordinator for Brown Girls Doc Mafia.
by Miasarah Lai
Yi Cui is a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker and educator, (Late Summer, Of Shadows) who embraces a process-driven filmmaking methodology that explores the boundaries of diverse cinematic forms by interweaving experimental film, essay, and ethnography. In proper quarantine fashion, I caught up with Yi on Zoom to talk about her 13 minute short “Through the Looking Glass”.
Caption: Cui pictured left, Lai on right.
Before filmmaking, Yi received an MSc in Conservation Ecology from the University of Michigan. Rather than pursuing doctoral studies in that field, Yi chose to follow her passion for cinema, and enrolled in York University’s MFA program in Film and Video. During her environmental conservation days she worked in Tibet, a place she returned to in her subsequent years as a filmmaker. Her conservation training had a lasting impact on Cui and her filmmaking philosophy. “It taught me ... to see human beings or to see ourselves only as a small part of a larger ecosystem,” Cui says. Her acute awareness of filmmaking itself as an ecosystem is a theme that emerges in her observational short, “Through the Looking Glass.” On a high-land Tibetan pasture, a screening event unfolds quietly. Monks, herdsmen and their families gather by the screen to observe life captured through their own lenses.
Yi currently works for the filmmaking program “From Our Eyes'' which supports indigenous communities to produce auto-ethnographic films. Coming from anthropology, auto-ethnographic films is a form of qualitative research where the author uses self-reflection to explore personal experience and connect this to wider cultural, and social meaning. She has been working with Tibetan communities for several years, where “Through the Looking Glass'' was filmed. The “From Our Eyes” program is at least 10 years old, and participatory filmmaking is situated as an act of resistance against the portrayals of communities usually by outsiders, in this case by westerners and Han Chinese.
Cui shares, the program participants “were really concerned with or most interested in showing their films to their local community….For many of them, the reason they made the particular kind of works is to ask questions, whether its an environmental question or political question about their own community… There was a particular film made a few years ago by a local monk. A certain ritual in the local area ... started to pollute the lake. It’s actually a sacred lake. So then the monk made a film about this and they actually affected the local policy-making...The lake was cleaned. ... So the first reason they made them was bring changes into their community.”
While it would be a stretch to call Cui’s short film auto-ethnographic itself, the film documents her presence and relationship to the Tibetan community and themes of self-reflexivity are embedded in the fabric of film. “Through the Looking Glass” opens with a shot of a very windy day of men sitting at a distance at the edge of the lake while ox roam freely. This moment is striking and delightful, but for the most unexpected reason. The shot is shaky because the camera can’t seem to stay still. The sheer force of the wind makes tides in the lake and pushes the camera up and down in the embrace of filmmaker, Yi Cui. The act of filmmaking is brought to the forefront. As the winds pick up, and the sky darkens, we watch as the community erects a tent to shelter arriving visitors. We can tell something is brewing, but we aren’t sure as to what. Is there a storm coming in?
While the villagers' work continues, we are given shots of men with cameras: a man walks with his camera and tripod, a group huddles around a camera in the grass, and a young man uses his friend as a tripod to directly film Cui. We, the viewers, are positioned in this circular relationship where the observer is being observed, and the observed is the observer. Cui articulates “I've become more and more interested in being embraced by the local people to participate in the creative process…. On the one hand, they are my subject of study, their lives, their customs, their culture. But at the same time they are part of the creative process [which] connects to my view about human beings as part of the ecosystem. So this is my way to connect myself to a local place or local community.” In this short film, the ecosystem of the filmmaking process comes to light.
Preparations continue into the night, until it’s finally revealed that treat of the night was a film festival. The festival was organized by and for the local Tibetan community of Nyanpo Yutse. All the films shown were by the community living in that pasture. We, the viewers, are confronted with those looking directly at the camera and the film screen at the film festival. The shots are gorgeous and reminiscent of Rembrandt's portraits. The title itself “Through the Looking Glass” takes on layers of meaning. “Glass” is evocative of the camera's lens. The “looking” is done by many on-lookers: the filmmaker, viewers of her short, the Tibetan film festival audience. Most important of all, it's “the local Tibetan people looking at themselves or looking at their own lives through their own lenses”. Cui’s “Through the Looking Glass” is a powerful short that reflects the agency of indigenous filmmakers, and the altruistic reason all humans make films: reflect on the world around us and influence the betterment of our societies.