On the surface, Viv Li and Lucy Parker have a lot in common. Both are up-and-coming women filmmakers currently participating in IDFA Project Space. Both have also enjoyed great acclaim in IDFA’s competition programs—Parker winning Best First Appearance in 2019 with Solidarity, Li earning a Special Mention in last year’s student competition with I Don’t Feel at Home Anywhere Anymore. Yet despite the apparent similarities, their films couldn’t be more different. Parker’s work is a testament to direct cinema, with the ability to transform politicized subjects into “a disquieting universal warning,” as the IDFA jury put it. Li’s filmmaking is a deeply personal, humorous affair that homes in on herself and her family within a broader cultural context. Nevertheless, speaking to the two talents as they research and develop new projects reveals an important affinity: a common process of discovery that is wholly creative, original, and often-times surprising.
“Basically the project started as one of my frustrations because I really don’t know how to deal with my body,” Li says of her new project The Two Mountains Weighing Down My Chest. “I feel like young women nowadays have this problem: they either think they are too skinny or too fat, and I have the same, especially with my breasts.”
Building on the groundwork of her last film, Li's new project promises to take a witty yet sharp look at her own family dynamics against the landscape of gendered Chinese culture. Two Mountains, set to be the Berlin-based filmmaker’s debut feature, will see Li explore women’s breasts as a vexed cultural taboo and an entry point to confront her own sexual and cultural identity.
As the project title implies, the issue carries real weight to it, even if that was only gradually revealed to Li during her research.
“I did a lot of research about the history of China and how China looks at the human body and the female body,” she says, “and I discovered a lot of things I didn’t know before. We bound breasts in the past, and we also had this ‘genderless’ era. I was really surprised. So I really wanted to make a film that expanded into a more cultural context.”
Since research began, the project has steadily grown in scope. Li names themes such as family, education, communication, and society, among other points of connection.
“It’s very difficult,” she says, when asked how to research such a personal project. “I read everything about female bodies in history and I spent a lot of time on it, but then I realized it’s not really helping to move my project forward. What really helped me was to talk to people in China.
“We organized a lot of interviews with people, and we talked about their experience and anecdotes,” Li recounts. “It’s perfect for my inspiration because it shows a lot of things about Chinese society, it’s hilarious, and it’s also personal.”
If Li’s process could be described as stemming from personal experience into broader cultural realms, Parker has had the opposite trajectory with Inquiry. Coming off the success of her last film, the new project follows the ongoing public inquiry into an undercover policing unit that infiltrated campaign groups over a forty-year period in the UK.
“It’s really vast,” she says of the inquiry, which launched in 2015. “There were over a thousand protest groups spied on in the UK, including social and political campaigns, environmental activists, and family justice groups.”
Parker acknowledges that all the different threads make narrowing the project’s focus an overwhelming task. Still, she knows sifting through them will come in time, and can’t be rushed.
“It takes time to work things through,” she explains. “Following the lengthy process of the inquiry is giving me time to learn, understand, and find a direction for filming.”
The ongoing research is exhaustive. First and foremost, Parker, who is based in London, has been going to the inquiry hearings and filming to the extent she can. She has also dived into the source material directly.
“I’ve been reading the documents and testimonies from the hearings, and also trying to understand the histories and politics of these groups and how they’ve shifted from the mid-1900s through to today,” she says. She completed a number of law courses as well in order to better understand the inquiry process.
Nevertheless, following a large-scale public inquiry doesn’t preclude a very personal filmmaking process. Parker’s trusting relationships with the core participants are clearly a guiding principle in her work. Something that, in turn, helps propel the project forward—in this case, by making a few short films as she works gradually towards a feature-length project.
“I find that the process of making short films along the way helps me to find a form,” she says, “but also it's something to share with the people that I’m working with.”
Though production hasn’t started yet, both filmmakers are thinking about their formalist approaches and what the film language might become, sometimes taking their previous films as a starting point.
“Through my last film I learned something: that I could provoke some more interesting reactions or scenes when I’m inside of the frame,” Li explains. “Especially with my family, it’s just more interesting to see the dynamic between me and my mom rather than have me standing behind camera.”
Humor is also an important tool in Li’s filmmaking; one she plans to continue wielding.
“It’s intimate and it’s personal,” she says of her use of humor. “I don’t want to generalize any behavior—the film is about the specific case of this person and this family. That’s how I learned that making it a bit intimate can actually solve problems and make things more accessible to other people.”
For Parker, observational camerawork proved powerful in her previous film, and it may well resurface in her new project.
“From the material that I’m gathering so far, there is a direct cinema way of just being there and observing,” she reflects. “I hope to be able to make a film that is representative, but I also find that staging certain scenes can help in bringing my own perspective.”
Filming group discussions is another set up Parker is eager to continue with as she moves forward.
“It allows people the space and time to think about what they want to say,” she explains. “I find that group discussions are a valuable way of bringing people together. It also mirrors a lot of activism work in terms of shaping ideas or understandings through groups.”
In conversation with the two filmmakers, something else becomes apparent. Both are keenly aware that their projects occupy a place within larger cultural narratives that are, to no small extent, lacking important perspectives. Through Inquiry and Two Mountains, they come closer to filling those gaps through a critical art-making practice.
“It’s about thinking, within a justice system or legal system, what are the things that get left out?” Parker asks. “One thing that’s demonstrated through the inquiry is that it doesn’t begin from a neutral starting point. There’s a risk that the inquiry looks at the acts of individual officers and localized practices rather than the wider systemic violence of political policing.
“For me as a filmmaker, it’s a journey of learning, getting to know people, and building my own understanding,” she continues. “That sort of understanding and durational process come hand in hand.”
Li, on the other hand, speaks candidly about the views on China she has encountered while living abroad.
“I spent a lot of time trying to jump out of my identity and trying to be ‘Western’ because I feel like we’ve been despised for the longest time,” she says. “It really saddens me when I hear so many misunderstandings about China, purely because people can’t distinguish the politics from the people or the culture.
“I see a lot of things exposed about China,” she continues. “But I feel that’s not the point. I really want to show understanding and show a different point of view. And just try to feel connection in a way.”
Through it all comes a new perspective on these issues, but also on the filmmaking journey itself.
“I enjoy the process of sculpting my understanding through filmmaking,” Parker says. “It often feels like writing through filmmaking: there’s a possibility to absorb and then produce something that's a perspective on a complex event. If I can spend this time sculpting and sifting, and then produce a film that offers a perspective—not that that perspective is complete or resolved—I feel then like it’s a process of offering an experience.”
Featured still: The Two Mountains Weighing Down My Chest by Viv Li.