Here’s Why We Need to Know the Name Yingying Zhang – SXSW Filmmaker In Focus

The 2020 SXSW Film Festival will be here before you know it! In anticipation of y’all coming here, get to know the films in our lineup a little bit better with our Filmmaker In Focus series.

Check out our Q&A with director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi as she tells us about her film Finding Yingying, which will World Premiere in the Documentary Feature Competition.

“When we think about a case like this, the media is likely to focus on the crime, investigation, or the perpetrator. They forget about the people left behind in the tragedy, and the person labeled only as the ‘victim’ becomes dehumanized. Finding Yingying is not a true crime film. It’s a story of a brilliant young woman who is loved by her family and friends, a story of her grieving family trying to stay strong while trying to find her, and navigating a strange, foreign country.” – Director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

In your own words, what does this film mean to you?

JS: Finding Yingying is my first film and I’ve been working on it since finishing graduate school in 2017. It’s been a very special emotional journey and a learning experience for me. In the past two years, I’ve witnessed many tragic moments as the case unraveled. But at the same time, I saw the humanity, strength and resilience from the community and those who were left behind. I also came to learn so much about Yingying: her optimism, perseverance, fearlessness, and her desire to experience life fully. She has become an inspiration to me and I am grateful to be able to share her story with audiences.

Finding Yingying is not an easy story to tell. As a first-time filmmaker, I struggled with ethical issues while dealing with my own emotions. I was also trying to maintain a sustainable life while navigating a clear career path. Fortunately, I received huge support and guidance from fellow filmmakers and mentors within the documentary community in Chicago, especially from Kartemquin Films. Finding Yingying is made through a joint effort, and the experience I have gained in this journey has been significant.

What motivated you to tell this story?

JS: Yingying and I are almost the same age and shared similar experiences. We both came to the U.S. as international students. When I first heard that she was missing, I was very worried, just like so many other Chinese students in the U.S. at that time.

The more time I spent with Yingying’s family, the more I thought about my own parents. I knew how devastated they would have been if this had happened to me. I knew how much a Chinese family has to give up to send their children abroad for a better future. Yingying and her family’s story resonated with me a lot. What’s more, I was afraid that Yingying and her family would be forgotten eventually as time passed by. That’s why I decided to continue following Yingying’s case and make a film that honors Yingying and her family.

What do you want the audience to take away?

JS: When we think about a case like this, the media is likely to focus on the crime, investigation or the perpetrator. They forget about the people left behind in the tragedy, and the person labeled only as the “victim” becomes dehumanized. Finding Yingying is not a true crime film. It’s a story of a brilliant young woman who is loved by her family and friends, a story of her grieving family trying to stay strong while trying to find her and navigating a strange, foreign country.

I hope after the audience watches the film, they walk away with the image of an extraordinary woman who had a wonderful life ahead and the impact of such a sudden loss in the community and everyone around her. I also hope Finding Yingying can help change the narrative of crime stories nowadays.

How did you find your subject?

JS: The first time I learned about Yingying was through a message from my college alum group chat. Yingying and I had both attended Peking University. The message said “a Chinese student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign was missing.”

At that time, I myself was an international student studying just a few hours away. The Chinese student groups in Urbana-Champaign and in the Chicago area started spreading the word and began an extensive search. After Yingying’s family arrived in the U.S., I also went down to Champaign to see how I could help. That’s how I first met Yingying’s family and began to learn more about her.

What made you choose SXSW to showcase your film to the world?

JS: Yingying’s disappearance is a huge story in China, but not as many people are aware of the case here in the U.S.. Yingying is still missing and her family have not been able to bring her back home. We want to reach as many people as possible to share her story and spark conversations to hopefully break stereotypes.

As one of the largest and most prestigious festivals in the U.S., SXSW is the perfect place for the world premiere of Finding Yingying. We hope the film can take off from SXSW and travel around the world!

What were you doing when you found out you were coming to SXSW?

JS: We hadn’t picture locked at that time, and I was actually recording my voiceover for the film. When I first saw the notification on my phone, I was afraid to open the email for fear it would be a “no.” After I read through the email and realized that we had gotten into SXSW, I screamed in my apartment. I immediately forwarded the email to the rest of the team. Everyone was so excited! Even now, it still feels surreal to me that we’re actually bringing Yingying’s story to the world and at such a great festival!

Add Finding Yingying to your SXSW Schedule. Stay tuned as we share more interviews with our SXSW 2020 filmmakers!

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Finding Yingying – Photo courtesy of film

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