Mina Son is a Los Angeles-based Korean-American filmmaker whose films have screened at film festivals and museums, including the National Gallery of Art, Margaret Mead, Traverse City, Mill Valley, and Cinequest. A two-time Student Academy Award Regional Finalist, Son has been awarded fellowships and funding from Independent Television Service, the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, Film Independent, PBS/CPB Producers Academy, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, and the Center for Cultural Innovation.
Sara Newens is a documentary filmmaker and editor who has worked in film and television for over a decade, including seven years at CBS News in New York City. Her films have screened at numerous festivals, including Sarasota, Traverse City, Starz Denver, Big Sky, and Rooftop Films. She is the recipient of a Princess Grace Foundation Award, CINE Golden Eagle Award, and a Student Academy Award Regional Finalist. Currently, she is a San Francisco-based producer/editor for clients that include Facebook, PG&E, the Stanford University School of Medicine, and various non-profits.
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
SN: Top Spin is a feature-length documentary following the lives of Ariel Hsing, Michael Landers, and Lily Zhang — three teenagers battling their way through the world of competitive ping pong. Our young athletes face unusual challenges coming of age in a niche sport, and reveal the kind of passion it takes to pursue their Olympic-sized dreams.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MS: Sara and I met at the Stanford MFA Documentary Program, where we had to co-direct a short together. We heard about a New York Times article highlighting junior ping pong champions in the Bay Area, and we thought it would make for an entertaining little documentary. From the first moment we met Ariel and her family, we knew the table-tennis world was unique and needed some exposure!
After making the short, we learned of two other incredible teenagers who were also dedicating their young lives to the Olympics and decided to turn this story into our first feature-length documentary. Ping pong is such an under-appreciated sport, and there’s very little opportunity to make money or become famous. And yet our subjects and their families were still devoted to it, simply because they loved it. As documentary filmmakers, this was something we could wholeheartedly relate to. Also, we are huge sports fans, so we were immediately drawn to the competition angle.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MS: With this being our first feature-length documentary, almost everything felt like an uphill battle! But I think the hardest part was trying to get funding. People often don’t realize that one of the reasons why documentaries take so long to finish is because of money, or rather, a lack of it. We explored every funding opportunity available, from grants to crowdfunding to individual donors. This can be time-consuming, which is also time spent away from actually working on the film, while balancing it with freelance work to pay the bills. By Year 3, you really have to dig deep to do whatever it takes to finish. The last 10% of the journey is pretty excruciating, but that feeling of finally finishing something is incredibly worthwhile.
SN: Not only is it challenging to find financial resources, but the creative process can be incredibly amorphous, especially in the post-production phase. You can edit yourself in circles until you finally have a breakthrough. And often times, the only way to know if you’re heading in the right direction is to show the film to new people and find out what is and isn’t working. Fortunately, we had a lot of good people in our orbit willing to give feedback along the way, which made the film better every single time.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
MS: Get me to a ping pong table!
SN: Yes! And we also hope that people come away with a better understanding of how difficult and nuanced table tennis really is. These kids are often training six hours a day to reach that Olympic level of play. It requires an extraordinary amount of dedication, much like any other sport.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
SN: For any filmmaker, I would say to use the community around you — they are often your biggest allies and can provide support and knowledge, especially if you are entering the feature-film arena for the first time. In addition to having many great colleagues from grad school, I was fortunate to find a women’s film group in San Francisco that became an outlet for everything from venting frustrations to finding the best place to print our posters.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
SN: A general misconception about documentaries is that they have to be serious and/or depressing. While there is definitely a place for films that illuminate important social issues, we really set out to make a fun, entertaining film from the get go. There is a relatively large gap in non-fiction content, with more educational fare on one side and reality TV on the other. We wanted to fill in that space with something lighter and nuanced that more closely reflects how we experience real life.
W&H: How did you get your film funded?
MS: We funded Top Spin through two Kickstarter campaigns and private donors. We definitely would not have been able to make this film without the power of crowdsourcing. Ping pong just doesn’t have that social-issue edge a lot of documentary funders are looking for, and although we applied to numerous grants, we weren’t successful in getting them. Had we pursued more traditional funding methods or waited for grant money for our first shoot in China, it never would have happened. Whereas with Kickstarter, it took only a month to raise over $20,000, which then allowed us to not only go to China, but to fund the first half of production.
W&H: Name your favorite women directed film and why.
SN: Oooh, this is tough because there are so many. Mina and I were exposed to a catalog of great female directors in school like Agnes Varda, Heddy Honigmann, and Kim Longinotto. But just recently, we were talking about how much we admire the careers of Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern. In fact, we watched Knuckleball! in the theater twice while we were editing to get ourselves into a sports documentary mode. They also did a fantastic job with Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, as they seem to have a way of putting their subjects at ease and allowing them to reveal something authentic on camera.
In fact, I think this is what most female filmmakers I know do really well — it’s more than just pointing a camera at someone. It’s about connecting with them as people first and listening. And when it’s done well, you can really feel that connection on screen.