A unique voice. A unique filmmaker. A unique background. A unique mind. This is VANESSA HOPE, the writer, director and producer of the documentary “ALL EYES AND EARS”.
The documentary follows the Mormon former Governor of Utah, John Huntsman, in his four-year term as American ambassador in Beijing, China. The ambassador’s story is intertwined with interviews of his adopted Chinese daughter Gracie Mei and blind Civil Rights leader/advocate Chen Guangcheng.
Two men and a girl. Where the men represent the two main faces of the world, the girl represents the future, the question not the answer. Nothing is black and white in this tale. There are many shades of gray, certainly more than fifty.
“ALL EYES AND EARS” is a complex, layered portrait of a country that is experiencing a tremendous economic rise and at the same time tremendous oppression.
Following the diplomatic work of ambassador Huntsman in China, the documentary gives us the opportunity to reflect on important topics such as the economics that govern the world, the failure of politics, the battle between the old and the new, the new technologies that provide new avenues of communication, and censorship that clamps down on this newfound circulation of ideas and dissent.
Walls no longer divide China from the rest of the world, but a wall of silence continues to protect those in power, and their relations with their dissidents, a wall of silence that protects an undisturbed power and generates ripples of corruption.
In a moment when economics, more than politics, determines the state of the world and America in particular more than any other country, watching this timely documentary makes us to re-consider how connected everything and everyone is. The certainty that money now governs the world, and that we witness the effects of that governance every day, gives us the understanding that we are all one, that we should go toward each other, connect with each other, unite instead of divide.
Through her woman’s eyes Vanessa paints a fascinating portrait of the relationship between the United States and China. She highlights the complex relations between the two countries, and how those relationships affect every country in the world. And in doing so, she captures important moments of truth. In a pivotal moment John Huntsman says, “We lost our credibility as a nation because of our wars.”
Vanessa is driven by the will to understand more. By the need to understand better.
Her inquisitive mind led her to China very early in life, when she was a student. She studied China and Chinese, and taught Law and Society at the People’s University in Beijing. She started her film career there and worked with many Chinese directors. In China she produced several films including Chantal Akerman’s Tombée de Nuit Sur Shanghai.
She went back to China again and again. She made her personal and professional life’s goal to explore, analyze and understand that country, so far away and yet so near to her.
I had a long meeting with Vanessa, a long and serious conversation. We talked about politics, economics, power, the destiny of people and of the world we live in.
It was fascinating to witness her passion and her relentless attempt to decode the mystery of power.
Just recently John Huntsman was tapped by Donald Trump to be the U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
Vanessa’s documentary, All Eyes and Ears, and this interview are powerful and relevant tools to understand the times we live in.
Please watch her documentary. “ALL EYES AND EARS” is currently available from Microsoft, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, Google Play.
Here is our Conversation:
Ivana: I watched your film, “All Eyes And Ears,” and I was very surprised. It was clear that a unique point of view was behind everything. And all those theses you laid out in front of us are so relevant right now. I was really surprised. What was the goal of this film?
Vanessa: I began the film with more questions than goals. I had a desire to investigate why, when, where and how human rights are secondary to economics and security, in foreign policy, in diplomacy, and in relations between countries in general. How is it that this rigid language and categorization process of foreign policy and diplomacy sets all global priorities? And that came from having entered this domain when I worked at a think tank in New York called The Council on Foreign Relations, which was a fantastic education. People from many different countries worked there and focused on all possible geographic regions and specialties. I gained a better understanding of the everyday functioning of government and policy making there. When Robert Rubin came to work at the Council after serving as President Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, it was an indication that, at the end of the 90’s, economics was considered paramount in foreign policy. It was the thinking behind globalization that economics would trump politics, and this was somehow a positive evolution for the world. It was as if there were no other answers and we didn’t need them. It was a decade after 1989 and communism collapsing, capitalism’s moment of triumph. But, there was always something odd to me about the problem of human rights abuses and how they were marginalized or ignored rather than recognized as inherent to these structures of power that needed restraining and rethinking. In my experience, when human rights advocates who would come in the door at the Council to attend meetings, they were seen as second-class citizens, peripheral to the more critical “hard” issues of economics and security. Maybe as a woman in that world, as a second-class citizen, I had a sense that the priorities and the thinking were wrong. After all, most human rights abuses are perpetrated against women and few women are in the top tiers of political, economic or security fields making policy decisions that take the treatment and status of women into account. We live in a deeply immoral and unjust world simply by nature of its sex segregation on such an enormous scale. This is a subject I’m tackling now in the follow-up film to “All Eyes and Ears,” which has a focus on “Women, Peace and Security” issues in the context of Taiwan which elected their first female president last January.
Ivana: So we don’t change really…
Vanessa: We are not changing the system…
Ivana: Because the system is still the same …
Vanessa: The system has completely been taken over by money. Trump is like the apotheosis of that corruption.
Ivana: But the GOP is using Trump to get what they want… It’s crazy. It’s like you said nothing has changed.
Vanessa: Things have gotten worse. The idea of corporate capitalism taking over politics, of big money not just influencing politics, but also completely pulling the strings, is the world we’re living in. And what we are seeing now are all the negative effects of that, because our political system is so fragile and it’s being crushed. Our institutions can be completely manipulated by money. And I wanted to marry these stories that are difficult to marry, but that are more reflective of our world, where you can understand how the issue of human rights is part of the narrative of economics and security. I wanted to allow the different threads to speak to each other. A story fell into my lap when I was filming with the U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman and that was the plight of blind, legal advocate Chen Guangcheng who escaped illegal house arrest and landed in the US embassy while we were making the film.
Ivana: Jon Huntsman was just nominated by Trump to be a U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Everything again is so connected. In this particular moment your film is very important to understand what’s going on.
Vanessa: Thank you so much.
Ivana: So you are an Academic?
Vanessa: I have those tendencies. I have a little of that background, yes. But I’m a filmmaker first.
Ivana: The film is a kind of thesis. It’s ordered, There are very few voices like yours. It’s complex, a complex gaze. So you had all these things in your head, and at a certain point I thought the choice of Jon Huntsman was so amazing. Your choices, to choose to follow that family, that governor, that ambassador were perfect. And at the end of his term, without your even knowing because your choice was so right, at the end, your ambassador was running for president of the United States!
Vanessa: Yes. It took us by surprise. I’d never been on a presidential campaign trail before.
Ivana: You didn’t know.
Ivana: You couldn’t have known in advance. But he did.
Vanessa: Yes. He did.
Ivana: Your film was probably part of his running for president. But that’s interesting too. Because this is politics.
Vanessa: Very much.
Ivana: I watched the documentary a few times because it’s complicated, and you go back and forth and you build this puzzle. At the beginning there is one story, then there is another story, and then there is another story. There are a lot of layers. And through those layers I connected with my personal story, my community’s story, my country’s story, Europe and the rest of the world. It’s pretty clear that we are in this together and it’s all connected. Even the civil rights lawyer ended up in New York. It’s really ingenious. Your documentary is ingenious.
Vanessa: Thank you so much! That’s very generous.
Ivana: I admire other people’s work and learning from it. Give me a little more background on the story.
Vanessa: A major, life changing event happened when I was doing a PhD in New York that I would say impacted my decision to go into film finally, impacted the choices I made in what films to produce initially (by Sarah and Emily Kunstler and by Zeina Durra) and impacted the film we’re discussing now, and that was September 11th. I had just come back from China the morning of September 11th. In graduate school, many of my friends were Arabic and Hindi speaking, and 24-7 email and in person conversations with them and other friends about September 11th made me that much more aware of the danger of American ignorance about the rest of the world. It made me think that much harder about the question of diplomacy, the question of why in America we didn’t encourage deeper understanding of other countries through study of their language, history, art, and politics, to prevent war.
Ivana: Where are you from and your family?
Vanessa: I’m from New York City and my family is a much longer story. But, I agree with you, Americans at a young age would benefit from a year of traveling abroad. And after September 11th, I thought that we really didn’t understand the Middle East and there weren’t enough people who spoke Arabic and there weren’t enough people talking about diplomacy. The US has built the greatest war-making force the world has ever known and the current president has proposed to increase our already bloated military budget by $54 billion. How do you challenge American militarism? Where is the social justice, antiwar, peace movement? Can we shift our focus to diplomacy? American troops remain in Afghanistan making it the longest-running war in American history. It is so disheartening. You could hear the drum beat of war after September 11th, and that was so upsetting to me. I wondered if, because China was the region of the world I focused on, learning the language, studying and teaching there, I could examine how diplomacy functioned vis a vis China? I then understood quickly, I had to have access to a character as a way into the story. I had excellent mentors when I worked at the Council, people like Jerry Cohen, who had been one of the first Americans ever to learn Chinese and study and practice law in China. He was in China in the 70’s helping them the moment they wanted to re-establish the legal system after Mao abolished most of it. And he is an incredible storyteller with amazing stories. I made some short films with him, and he had brought me into the U.S. Ambassador’s residence under George W. Bush. I thought this would make an interesting window into the larger story of the relationship between the two countries, or could be, if it were possible to access an ambassador. Then I was excited when President Obama was elected and I thought, “Oh, he’ll have an interesting ambassador.” And he chose the Republican Jon Huntsman who was governor of Utah. I had some State Department connections I was going through to have access to the ambassador when he was appointed. Then when I learned that Geralyn Dreyfous, who is a great documentary film producer, and lives in Utah could contact the Huntsmans directly, that was it. Geralyn said, “Come to Salt Lake City and meet him. He’s my governor and I do arts programs with him. We will pitch him the story and see what he says.” We pitched the story as one in which he would be one window into the larger narrative of the relationship between the two countries.
Ivana: So he would be like the chaperone, introducing the country through his own experience.
Vanessa: His own personal and work experience, yes. And he said, “Okay, turn the camera on.”
Ivana: You were at the right place at the right time without even knowing it.
Vanessa: Yes, it was a unique opportunity because…
Ivana: He needed somebody.
Vanessa: He needed somebody. It’s hard to get to know politicians. They’re interesting creatures, as are civil servants. Trump is a reflection of how little Americans like politicians. Trump running as an anti-politician helped him win. The anti-politician political climate in America today was observable when Huntsman was running for president too. Some people watching the film have a sort of knee-jerk reaction against politicians and against a politician in a film. As the filmmaker, I had to be in his shoes a little, which was tough.
Ivana: He is a winner nevertheless. The family and everything are winning.
Vanessa: Thank you. Yes. But it’s complicated. It’s complex. I mean I know he did a good job as U.S. Ambassador in China. He cared about human rights, and he spoke up about them. But he’s serving an administration and a system. To me it’s never just about the individual, it’s the individual in a system and in a world dictated by certain ideas, and all of those layers matter in how anyone can function in the world. And maybe, again, it’s being a woman that makes me more aware of why and how there are larger forces around us that don’t work right. But there is a system around us that we are working within that constrains us and guides us and that we are at war with, whether it’s patriarchy, imperialism, white supremacy, racism, sexism. We didn’t write the rules of the system, and that is why we are still struggling to this day for equal rights and equal opportunity in law, in reality and practice. So yes, Huntsman was very generous, and his family too to let us into the more complex and challenging aspects of their lives and work and then to allow me my critical voice and outsider perspective in the making of the film.
Ivana: His wife, Mary Kaye, never spoke in the film.
Vanessa: No, she was more quiet, but she does speak. I think for her, her primary role is as a mother. She has 7 children. That was her choice. We wanted to show her while she was with the women’s group in Southern China because it was her contribution, to speak up on their behalf. Her adopted Chinese daughter Gracie, was very quiet too, especially when we were just filming them traveling around in verité. I wanted to give a platform to Gracie, a place and a space where she could speak and feel comfortable and empowered.
Ivana: You obliged her to be that girl.
Vanessa: I gave her the recording room and the spotlight, because I wanted to give her a chance to have a voice, to see herself as an active agent in her story, as a human being.
Ivana: Yes, you can see that and you can also see how difficult it was for Gracie to allow herself to be that girl.
Vanessa: You get it. So many other reactions were just confused that she wouldn’t rebel. “Why did she not rebel? Why isn’t she rebellious?”
Ivana: She’s like us. She’s a girl. You have to educate and train yourself to be that woman. You have to nourish yourself with certain thoughts. She’s nine, ten. Maybe in ten years you can call Gracie and have a conversation and see what she became after all this.
Vanessa: Yes, that’s interesting. You mentioned the film “Toni Erdmann” in previous conversations, which is a father-daughter story, and a father-daughter story is always going to reflect patriarchy in some way. Actually I think it’s a great side of Jon Huntsman that he was and is so encouraging of his daughters. He is not depriving them of any opportunity or limiting their dreams of what or who they can become. And he is genuinely pro-education which means his daughters can learn to think for themselves.
Ivana: He is a very cultivated man.
Vanessa: Yes. I think one of the more interesting trips we took with him in the film was to Tibet. On the way we stopped in a Muslim Chinese region called Qinghai, and he visits a mosque. It was a unique experience. I can speak Chinese, but I cannot understand that local dialect. So it wasn’t until in the edit that I fully understood that this Muslim government official was taking Huntsman to task for President Bush attacking the rest of the Middle East after September 11th. He tells Huntsman, “Bush overreacted.” And Huntsman’s response was very diplomatic.
Ivana: He kind of has big scope answers all the time.
Vanessa: Yes, yes, big scope. But then I was able to marry that later with a one-on-one interview I had with Huntsman at a particular time when he was especially reflective, after he had dropped out of the presidential race.
Ivana: He was more reflective?
Vanessa: He was very reflective and a sort of harder realist about the world.
Ivana: Very interesting because he said something amazing for me.
Vanessa: Yes, that people hate us, the U.S. for all of our endless wars, our seeming lack of concern for other countries’ interests, which is what the feeling was after September 11th and now it’s certainly the reality. But he’s speaking about that in the context of our wars in the Middle East making us lose standing internationally and how we should be out there trying to lift people up, not bringing them down, and we need to bring economic prosperity to the world, not disadvantage and inequality.
Ivana: Old school Republican. Just to say that the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, passed in many states because of Republicans, not just Democrats. In the seventies. It’s crazy.
Vanessa: Yeah. I think that we were married to this idea that economic growth and liberalization would bring political liberalization. That it would mean if China were doing business with the world and growing economically, it would want to become a democracy. In fact we are seeing the opposite around the world everywhere right now. There’s anger. There’s disillusionment because what happened was increasing inequality. Unfortunately neo-liberal globalization was essentially a few people at the top making all the money and everybody else left behind, and looking for someone to blame. We’re seeing it everywhere now, Brexit, Trump, the rapid rise of France’s National Front, Italy’s Five Star Movement, and Germany’s AFD. I could feel the anger then, while making the film and following Huntsman on the campaign trail or filming the Occupy Wall Street movement. I was immersed in it. For me, Trump was not a surprise.
Ivana: Yes, I understand. There is something I want to ask you about that. In the film someone said something about the sense of victimhood in the Chinese people.
Vanessa: Yes, I keep thinking about that too. The subject of Chinese victimhood is a big and important one. The way the Chinese government lays it out in propaganda and in education is this idea of “a hundred years of humiliation” of China by Western powers. China’s rulers (in Chinese, the word China, Zhōngguó, means Middle Kingdom) felt they were the center of the earth. They had a five thousand year history, a great civilization and culture and barbarians were invading from Europe and America to take from them or supplicate to them and they were not interested. And then there were wars. Mao was the one who said, “We’re going to lift you up. We’re going to have a sense of national identity. We are going to close our borders and rebuild ourselves and we are going to fight back.” The communist experiment only lasted so long and ended with millions of deaths, but it changed China. And yet there is a sense of victimhood that comes from that “century of humiliation” by invading Western powers and wanting to blame the West rather than face and take responsibility for their own history. Once China did reopen to the rest of the world at the beginning of the 1970s, there was a feeling of being behind and needing to catch-up to the West, expecting the West’s help and being let down by it. Now China has had economic success, yet still feels like a victim. Victimhood as national identity is a real problem because it’s used as justification for war.
Ivana: Trump supporters think we didn’t listen to them, they provoked and created this. Hopefully in six months to a year they will see their mistake. And I fear the reaction of these people. They will have a reaction of victimhood that will be not a normal reaction.
Vanessa: True. There is another layer to this that would interest you. When it comes to China and victimhood, the result of the one child policy plus the preference in China that is centuries old for male children over female means there is a huge imbalance between the sexes…
Ivana: How many women are there and how many men?
Vanessa: I don’t now the exact numbers. But a lot of single men will never find a wife in China so there’s sex trafficking, taking women from other countries to help get Chinese men married. But that won’t fix the problem. There are a lot of angry men in China who are single, will never find a home, a wife, have a family or settle down and they feel victimized. They’ re likely to release their anger by protesting in the streets and fighting the government. What the Chinese government wants to do with those men who are called ‘bare branches’ because they will never have families, is send them off to war, to get rid of them so they stop causing trouble domestically. It makes a country more likely to be aggressive and militaristic if they have a lot of victimized, angry, single men they need to figure out how to put to use.
Ivana: They need to start war just to get rid of them? Wow.
Vanessa: Yes. They are more likely to. That’s another layer to the film’s story because the blind Chinese civil rights advocate, Chen Guangcheng, is fighting for women who are forcibly sterilized and go through horrendous invasion of their bodies because the state wants to control the population size. And that gets twisted in political language in the U.S because it can be interpreted through a Republican pro-life lens. In China, it has nothing to do with pro-life vs. choice. Chen Guangcheng was trying to defend these women against the state sanctioned invasion of their bodies, and that brought him to international attention, which made the government want to crack down on him.
Ivana: So does he still have this spotlight on him?
Vanessa: Unfortunately, the spotlight for Chen Guangcheng has diminished since he had to leave China. No documentary film can ever keep the spotlight on anyone long enough the way media and film cycles work. And it’s a common tactic of authoritarian governments to isolate and exile their bravest, most patriotic citizen “dissidents.” For the Chinese government, it’s to their advantage to not have Chen Guangcheng in China where he would be more problematic for them. The issues women in China face that Chen focused on, I’ll bring out in the Taiwan film. But the way in which they are just sort of embedded as a small thread or two in the larger fabric of the story in the U.S China film, “All Eyes and Ears,” is a direct reflection of how it is in the world unfortunately.
Ivana: It is a reflection of all of us, an impactful reflection on a country. I don’t know anything about China. But at the same time whatever you see in your film, the reflections you make in the film is what we are living. Here. Now.
Vanessa: Thank you. Which is that women are not the center of attention or concern–those stories of what is happening to women are far too below the surface. Instead, they should really connect for people to the larger foreign policy, security and economic issues. It is all interconnected. But for the most part, women are almost invisible. Women have no voice in politics in China. They’re not represented in government. They’re treated terribly in society. And it’s a reflection of why the country is being as aggressive as it is now, military, in the South and East China Sea and elsewhere .
Ivana: So, going back to the film, it took a lot of time for you to put together this film.
Vanessa: We decided early to take a longitudinal view because we knew it was a unique opportunity to have this access to an ambassador. We wondered what the full term would be.
Ivana: How long is a full term?
Vanessa: It could be four years, but he left and ran for president so that was a twist.
Ivana: My idea was that he provoked his getting kicked out.
Vanessa: When he knew he was going to leave, he might have allowed himself to go places like a protest march. That’s true.
Ivana: It looked prepared to me. He couldn’t be there. He’s an American Ambassador.
Vanessa: It was a symbolic gesture. A reflection of the exasperation or frustration those in the State Department and the Embassy in Beijing felt about how China handles human rights abuses. I think it was a sign that he was willing to be retaliated against by the Chinese government, that he was willing to go and show his face where a diplomat would not normally be, at a protest.
Ivana: So, did the Chinese watch the film?
Vanessa: This came as a surprise for me, but the film is going to be available in China. You can watch it digitally there.
Ivana: It’s a very subtle film.
Vanessa: I tried not to be too obvious. Some of the characters are less subtle than others. Chen Guangcheng, like many activists, speaks, thinks and acts in big, bold and brave ways. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed interviewing him. He’s so true to himself and his principles and lives by them more than most of us are able to. Yet even when he’s being righteous or has a critique, he’s being encouraging and hopeful that change will come. We live in such a jaded, cruel and corrupt world. I tried to paint the full picture both of the US and China and their relationship so that audiences could come to their own conclusions. My voice is in there in subtle, often humorous ways. I try to find the humanity in every character, find empathy for all of them and place them in their full contexts so that it’s clear there are larger forces at work than any individual, even working at their greatest impact, can have.
Ivana: The lawyer said something very important at a certain point about the money, the accumulation of the money in China, that at this point they should give money to the people. I thought, WOW, this is communism. Because they are doing something with the old ideology, at the same time, like for us, money is just part of the oligarchy. And this guy is saying that, so believing in that, is so innocent in some way, but it is so right.
Vanessa: Yes, he has a genuine innocence. And he is so brave about speaking the truth. I don’t know who is watching the film in China, but let’s say someone who is a Communist Party member in China watches. There are more than 85 million members. That the film shows that the party is openly fighting corruption at the top, a party member watching this would not necessarily be upset by it. That Chen Guangcheng speaks about the anti-corruption campaign, isn’t bad for the party. It’s something they’re proud of and consider good. I am not an ideologue. I’m not Stephen Bannon making documentaries. I have no agenda to push on people. I want to explore the world, show you the world, and leave it open to interpretation. I mean we kept the film linear so the reason it ends with Chen landing in New York is because that was the last major plot point in the timeline of the film. But I look at the film now after Trump came to power and think how tragic the whole story is, based on the ending. Here is someone, Chen Guangcheng, who really cares about what makes democracy work, cares about human rights, about equality, justice, reform, and he thinks he’s going to find that in America. He’s going to study that here. And he knows we’re not perfect, but it is sad that he has come at this moment when it’s so obvious that American democracy is so far gone.
Ivana: It will be difficult to go back to a kind of balance.
Vanessa: Maybe we can revive it.
Ivana: It will take a long time because Trump destroyed it in six weeks already. During the campaign he destroyed a lot of things, but in these six weeks he is destroying things that people will have to work very hard to rebuild. It’s very tragic. But the silver lining is that finally people are getting together, people go out in the street, people say no, everyone is now finding the courage to say what they think and they’re building their own idea of what justice is. This is amazing for America, so I’m saying this because if we didn’t have Trump we wouldn’t have this.
Vanessa: You’re right. It’s like the mask of power has dropped and people are seeing what’s really going on and they’re organizing, speaking up and protesting. So you’re right, maybe it is a good time for Chen to be here because he will see that process of democracy in action happening.
Ivana: What I learned in my experience is until you have the enemy in front of you everything is in your mind, is an intellectual approach. We were so spoiled by eight years of Obama. Now we are back to basic things all together. But let’s come back to your film. So you went to Tibet by yourself with a DP…
Vanessa: With a DP, Magela Crosignani.
Ivana: You must be crazy. But I understand. I went to Africa. It was complicated. The African artist I made the film about wanted to marry me, because he couldn’t obey me unless we were married. And he already had five wives. Yes. We do these things.
Vanessa: Ha! I wanted to go into film because I grew up watching and loving films and learning a lot about them. My mother’s parents were in the film business. Her mother was an actress in Hollywood in seventy-one movies, and her father was a producer of over seventy movies. They had a company with Fritz Lang.
Ivana: Oh Really? So you were from that Hollywood?
Vanessa: My mother was. I loved movies from a young age, but my mom did not want me to go into film. So I got a PhD and studied Chinese and I was teaching in China and making my mother happy, and secretly studying films and going to movies on the side. Because I was in New York for my PhD, I could go to places like Lincoln Center to see films like the ones they curated of the “Sixth Generation” Chinese directors. The “Fifth Generation” is directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, and among the “Sixth Generation,” now the most famous director is Jia Zhangke. But I worked with a “Sixth Generation” director named Wang Quan’an, whose movie I saw at Lincoln Center, “Lunar Eclipse,” and loved. It was a Chinese interpretation in many ways of Krzysztof Kieslowski film, “The Double Life of Veronique,” which is one of his favorite movies, also made in a country with heavy censorship. When I went to China to teach a graduate class after finishing coursework in my PhD, I started working with him on his second film, which is called “The Story of Ermei,” as a producer, story collaborator, translator. As a writer, director, producer, Wang Quan’an had to wear many hats and also act as a kind of agent or manager for his actors and liaison with film festivals. He managed to go to film school in the first class of students able to attend film school once they reopened again after the Cultural Revolution. He knew how to hustle and how to make a film happen without the film system or infrastructure fully up and running again yet in China. It was an amazing experience to learn so many aspects of the process and collaborate in Chinese. It was enlightening to me too that he was motivated artistically partly by the sense of an enemy in his face (as you said) that required him to make films that were considered “underground” i.e. unfit according to the Chinese government to be shown in China even if they’d screened in Berlin, Cannes or Venice. He was paranoid about needing to keep his art and his process secret until he could get his film into a European film festival. Operating in a surveillance state with full authoritarian control like China’s, you have to figure out how to make art that is subtle, that has more layers, that can critique society and by extension the government, without offending them. This is the same way that Asghar Farhadi works. I had a whole conversation at the baggage claim of LAX with Asghar about this because we met each other on the awards circuit. He too tells layered, complex, tightly pulled together stories that have a political meaning larger than the immediate personal family story. But he has to work this way because he is working in a system against a state and censorship.
Ivana: Art is that. You have to just choose a way. Iranians are the best at that, by the way.
Vanessa: I love that about movies in particular. And you, as someone who grew up with communism in Italy, might find it interesting that if you look at all of the “Sixth Generation” directors’ movies you see that they are very much about the struggle to recover from the shock of capitalism, the shock of this brutal, inhuman economic system that reduces people to numbers and makes everyone dog-eat-dog, greedy, violent and hurtful. And it’s the opposite of what was, for a moment, more of a communitarian collective existence.
Ivana: After the fall of the Berlin wall, Russia was like the old Far-West. The Mafia and secret political forces bombed banks and cars, killed people almost every day. It was a shock for regular people. It was very controversial. Like this one is controversial. But what the Russians went through after the wall fell… It was crazy. I know a lot of Russian directors. I worked with Andrei Konchalovsky.
Vanessa: Their movies are really amazing. Russian movies really stay with me.
Ivana: I grew up with those movies. We don’t think enough about this wall. They never think about what will happen after building the wall. What the wall will provoke in people. What people will do to go over it when they come here. They create monsters.
Vanessa: Definitely. I was going to tell you about a funny phenomenon. There’s a popular Italian story called “The Gadfly.” It’s a book and movie about the Italian Risorgimento, about a father who is a Cardinal and a son who rebels. And it was really popular in communist China. It was THE movie, THE book during the Cultural Revolution. The filmmaker, Carma Hinton (who grew up in China because her mother was a communist who had a dairy farm outside Beijing with her husband—that I worked at incidentally) has made some excellent documentaries about China and the one with “The Gadfly” reference is about the Cultural Revolution.
Ivana: I understand. Italy was the only country in Europe, a part of the countries of Russian’s orbit that had a very strong communist party in the government, for years.
Vanessa: You will like the Carma Hinton film. I think in general, there always has to be layers of thought behind every choice in a movie, every scene, character, action, word of dialogue. There’s a filmmaker who’s in television now, who I observed doing this very well in her production process, and that’s Jill Soloway. When directing, you need a kind of thematic emotional idea behind every choice, or it’s not interesting. It’s nothing.
Ivana: It’s just something that exists on the surface and then it’s gone.
Vanessa: Yes, it’s like we just make disposable iPhone diary movies all the time and put them on Instagram and they’re gone.
Ivana: You told us about how you got into the movie business and watched these films. Everything is serious in your life. Do you have something light in your life?
Vanessa: Ha! You’re right. Singing. I don’t have the courage to sing in public, but I enjoy singing and love music.
Ivana: So what kind of songs?
Vanessa: Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, Stevie Nicks, Marianne Faithful, Mazzy Star, Patti Smith, Sharon van Etten, Dusty Springfield, Emmylou Harris.
Ivana: So this is your light part. Women should allow themselves to be everything, everything they are. We shouldn’t only show that we are intelligent and strong. We have to have vulnerability, fragility. We need to be in touch with our fragility to be artists, because fragility is the basis of art. We love an actor when he is good, when he is strong and when he is fragile, like Russell Crowe, Brando, Kidman, Cotillard. We are fascinated by that. My education as a woman, as a filmmaker, was to open myself to this fragility, because I had a lot, but I never showed it. You, you have this light. It’s so specific, it reminds me of a closet. You have this closet filled with your self, mind, body, and I see that in your documentary. I barely know you. What I got of you, I got from your documentary. The work we produce, it speaks about us. Our work speaks for us. So you, whatever you are doing as a writer, director and/or producer, I am saying this to you now, we need that voice you have, because there are not many original, unique voices out there.
Vanessa: That’s so kind of you! Thank you! There’s not enough out there, I agree.
Ivana: I say that often. And to women in particular. Don’t try to mimic the men to enter this business, try to find your voice. Read the Roadmap of Women Occupy Hollywood. It’s a kind of manifesto. Women’s exploration and discovery of their own voices in order to create an alternative to the present male-dominated Hollywood model is one of the points of the manifesto.
Vanessa: That’s funny, something I wrote recently I was thinking of as a manifesto.
Ivana: Yes! Do it! We need that! I need that, that unique, original voice! Your world is important. We find things there. We find ourselves in that world. We need these important stories that come from that world. In America one of the directors I really admire is Debra Granik, the director of “Winter’s Bone.” She has a specific, unique, disturbing voice. A lot of European filmmakers have unique voices. Susanne Bier has one. The director of Toni Erdmann, Maren Ade, has one.
Vanessa: We watched one of Maren Ade’s earlier films because we loved “Toni Erdmann” so much and you can see the beginnings of her technique, her point of view, her world…
Ivana: She deconstructs everything. You have this voice. You’re very articulate, not just with words, but with your mind. So please search for your stories, close your eyes and find them inside you, in your core, then open your eyes and just do it. No one tells us that.
Vanessa: No one tells us that. Few people watch your work and give you such beautiful analysis and feedback with such heartfelt meaning. Thank you!
Ivana: I saw your film a few times, because there is a mystery there. Always in an important piece there is a mystery that you don’t even perceive clearly the first time. The first time you see something and then you see another thing, and you see the layers, then you see that it was you. You said something before, I’m not sure it’s true, but you said you are not an ideologue?
Ivana: But you are a filmmaker. You offer us your vision, and it’s not about an ideology, but it is about a thought. So your thought commands the whole film. So that’s your responsibility. There’s a mystery there. Thank you!
Vanessa: Thank you!
by Ivana Massetti
Women Occupy Hollywood
Founder & CEO
Vanessa Hope started her film career in China while teaching a graduate course on law and society at People’s University (on a grant from the Ford Foundation) and completing her PhD at Columbia University. Fluent in Chinese, she has produced multiple films in China, including Wang Quanan’s The Story Of Ermei (Berlin Film Festival), Chantal Akerman’s Tombee De Nuit Sur Shanghai (Director’s Fortnight Cannes Film Festival), and her own short films: China In Three Words, featuring Chinese author, Yu Hua (Palm Springs, Doc NYC), and China Connection: Jerry, with Jerome Alan Cohen (Palm Springs, Doc NYC). She directed and produced a web series for NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute called Law, Life & Asia. Her U.S. producing credits include the Oscar short-listed feature documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe, by Sarah and Emily Kunstler (Sundance Film Festival). Vanessa’s feature documentary directorial debut, All Eyes And Ears, premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
“ALL EYES AND EARS” is currently available from Microsoft, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, Google Play.
Prior to her film career, Vanessa worked on foreign policy issues at the Council on Foreign Relations with Senior Fellow and Director of Asia Studies Elizabeth Economy. She also worked at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations when David Lampton was president. She graduated with honors from the University of Chicago, and her PhD studies at Columbia have included the Princeton University program in Beijing, and a year at Stanford University’s program in Taipei. Vanessa grew up in New York City, and now lives in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @VHopeful and @alleyesearsdoc.