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Tribeca 2015 Women Directors: Meet Vanessa Hope – “All Eyes and Ears”

Tribeca 2015 Women Directors: Meet Vanessa Hope - "All Eyes and Ears"

Vanessa Hope started her film career in China while teaching a graduate course at People’s University. Fluent in Chinese, she’s produced multiple films in China, with civil rights as a common theme of her work. Hope is currently a fellow at the San Francisco Film Society’s Film House. (Tribeca Film Festival

All Eyes and Ears” will premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on April 20.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

VH: We hope “All Eyes and Ears” will stand the test of time as one of the more definitive looks at the US-China relationship and its international implications ever made. 
The US and China are the two most powerful players in global affairs. When I tell people this next line, I know it’s hard to fathom, but no international relationship is more consequential to the world because how these two countries choose to cooperate and compete affects billions of lives. A core assumption of international diplomacy is that more conversations will result in mutual understanding and more positive, friendly feelings. But what if those conversations, when they happen, result instead in retrenchment? What if they leave a bitter taste behind?
A really fascinating tipping point has recently been reached on this subject, and I’m excited that we’ve captured a sense of it in the film. It’s a critical point in the US’s evolving understanding of China that seems to be leading to a new and irreversible development in terms of how we interact. 

I was fortunate to be able to get at these larger questions in the film through three tremendous characters I happened to meet the old-fashioned documentary way, by reaching out with no prior relationship. [Former] Ambassador [Jon] Huntsman came on my radar because I was waiting to see whom President Obama would appoint to the position [of official envoy to China]. [Huntsman’s daughter] Gracie came on my radar when going through the footage in the edit and realizing her unique and emotional relationship to both countries as an adopted Chinese girl. Chen came careening seemly out of nowhere and crash-landed into our story in a way that we couldn’t turn away from.

They are all timeless characters, particularly in the US-China story. I think of Chen as the blind man who sees more than most, like Gloucester in King Lear after his eyes are plucked out. I think of Gracie as Little Red Riding Hood, skipping innocently into the deep dark woods of China and not knowing what she’s going to find. I think of Ambassador Huntsman as the cockeyed optimist in the sense that Nellie, the Navy nurse, sings of being full of hope in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific.” I think in order to be a public servant or run for president [as Huntsman did], you have to be a tremendous optimist. So Huntsman and Chen are the yin and yang of US-China relations and in between them is this young woman figuring out her place in the world.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

VH: I started out in China when I was eighteen, naïve about politics, and as open-minded about everything new I encountered as I could be. I did not ever set out to get under the Chinese government’s skin. It was an East Asian history course in high school that interested me in China. I could not understand why I was only learning about the most populous country on earth with one of the longest histories, a country that had had an especially rough ride in the last hundred years, so late.

Armed with my new favorite book, Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior,” I went to China right from twelfth grade. I was the youngest person on my study abroad program and I loved it. I pursued the Chinese language like the drummer in “Whiplash” pursued drumming, with boot-camp intensity. I even worked on a Chinese farm digging ditches. The closer I got to Chinese friends in China and the more I learned about the country, the better I understood how politics is everywhere.

Jon Huntsman was a good Ambassador, but that was not the question that interested me. The US-China relationship continues and affects every country in the world. Each Ambassador can only do so much during their tenure, and some happen into stickier situations than others. It’s precisely that interaction between the individual and the global, one person’s will and the political environment around them that I wanted to explore. With unprecedented access to Ambassador Huntsman, I was able to explore these questions on the ground while he was in action. I knew there was more to the story than we’ve ever seen in film before.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

VH: I think I should answer this one with a list, because really, what wasn’t a challenge on this film?

Don’t be afraid:

–That fewer than 7% of directors and fewer than 5% of DPs are women. I worked with two women cinematographers on this project.

–To follow the Ambassador around China to the confusion and surprise of both governments, who want to know what my agenda is and who put me up to this and make every shooting trip a new negotiation.

–To fight to get access every single day of every single shoot. That includes most memorably, going to Tibet via 25-hour train with less than two weeks to get a special Tibet permit and train tickets and staying on board the train when the Chinese propaganda department wanted to kick us off at 3am in the middle of nowhere so we wouldn’t film.

–That people are wildly irrational, emotional, opinionated and persecuting when it comes to a political subject. People look to politicians to save them and the world and when [politicians] don’t or can’t rescue them, they resent them. By wading into this subject, you will fully experience what it feels like to be a politician, even if this has never been your ambition and you already knew it was no cakewalk.

Do be afraid:

–Of hurting Chinese friends and participants because the Chinese government’s harsh consequences for crossing the mysterious lines they define and redefine every day to confuse people is real and you are responsible for everyone when you turn your camera on.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

VH: As Acton famously observed, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If people leave the theater thinking about that, it would be great. At the same time, because of the characters in the film and the hard work they’re doing and emotional connection they’re creating, I’d like audiences to come away from the film also thinking about hope.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

VH: My advice is to challenge yourself, fight your fears and re-gender what you need to re-gender. 

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

VH: Are there already misconceptions about me and my work out there? I’m not listening to them. If someone is harboring misconceptions about me or my work then they can come to me directly and I will set them straight. If people want to learn more about me and my work, they can Skype me through our Indiegogo campaign.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

VH: I think we really got our film funded because it was staged financing that came in like a trickle over time with proof of concept continually given throughout. That’s also my husband Ted’s theory for why there are more women directing documentary films than fiction films: staged financing. To date, there haven’t been enough financial backers for women-directed fiction films, let alone at higher budgets, because all the money is required upfront and men prefer to trust other men with big chunks of money.

My producer, Gamechanger Films’ Geralyn Dreyfous, is alleviating the problem of financing women-directed fiction films — as are other new and old players. But documentaries are most often made on shoestring budgets — like ours — and a combination of grants and soft money with few investments looking for recoupment, which was our situation. 

By the time this article hits, we’ll have launched our Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign for funds for marketing, distribution, the festival run, screenings and, well, we’re still polishing the film. You can support us.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

VH: I don’t have a single favorite woman-directed film. But I can tell you why I love the following list of women directed films: Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Nadine Labaki’s “Where Do We Go Now?,” Yu Li’s “Lost in Beijing,” Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Wadjda,” Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” Agnieszka Holland’s “Burning Bush,” Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s “Innocence,” Laura Poitras’ “CitizenFour,” Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” Andrea Arnold’s short “Wasp,” Susanne Bier’s “In A Better World,” Lynne Ramsay’s short “Gasman,” Jane Campion’s “The Piano,“ Julie Gavras’ “Blame it on Fidel.” These films are all ambitious, often groundbreaking, moving, feminist and fully engaged with the world and what’s significant in life. All of their films have stayed with me over time and continue to inspire me.

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