Q&A with Qiu Yang, representing VCA at Cannes Film Festival

VCA Film and Television graduate Qiu Yang (MFTV, 2014) has had his student film Under the Sun selected to screen at this year’s Cannes Cinefondation, part of the 68th Festival de Cannes. Here he discusses with Kieran O’Shea his rebellious beginnings with filmmaking, his creative process and how filmmaking for him is a life-long arts practice that requires unflinching honesty. 

By Kieran O’Shea

How did you first become interested in film?

I wasn’t the type of person who got my first camera at the age of five and then made my first film by eight. I never grew up wanting to be a director, but was always interested in art. My grandfather is a painter and my dad is an architecture designer and I was trained to paint from a very young age. I also loved writing; I even took one year off in high school and just tried to write. Of course it didn’t really pan out, but it gave me time to watch a huge amount of films, and through that it allowed me to explore a world of cinema beyond mainstream movies. I was very rebellious during high school and wasn’t very academic, which isn’t really a good thing for a Chinese high school student. So I just decided to study filmmaking, as it combines all the art forms that I love.

What was your experience of moving to a new country to study  like? What challenges did you encounter?

It was hard, but very rewarding in the end.  I moved to Australia in early 2010 to undertake a Bachelor of Filmmaking at the Griffith Film School in Brisbane. Language was definitely the main issue in the beginning – during high school I really hated studying English. I thought I’d never want to go overseas, so why would I need to learn English?

Obviously filmmaking is heavily dependent upon oral communication. So my intermediate English proficiency combined with a lack of experience in filmmaking meant I really struggled in that initial phase to understand what everyone was trying to communicate. My English improved quite quickly because everyone in the course was incredibly welcoming and the lack of Chinese students meant I couldn’t fall back on speaking Chinese.

Under the Sun, film still, Qiu Yang, 2014
Under the Sun, film still. Qiu Yang, 2014

What do you most enjoy about filmmaking?

Probably the creative process. I see filmmaking as a way of dealing with my personal issues and struggles, a way to understand and describe the world as I see it. So the creative process is almost therapeutic for me. I wouldn’t describe it as enjoyable, as you have to put yourself in very vulnerable situations in order to become honest, but the result is rewarding.

As [Austrian film director] Michael Haneke said: “I can sort out my fears and all those things with my work. That’s an enormous privilege. That’s the privilege of all artists, to be able to sort out their unhappiness and their neuroses in order to create something”.

How was the experience of making your first film? Was it a steep learning curve?

My first film was actually my graduate film from the bachelor course in Brisbane. It was a huge learning experience and great practice to discover the most comfortable way for me to work with actors and crew on set. I had a lot of professionals helping me with that first film, as I thought it was necessary for an inexperienced director to have that kind of support.

But conversely, it led to me being unable or at least too shy to step up and take control. Whenever everyone would suggest something, I didn’t know how to say no, which led to a final film I wasn’t too satisfied with.

Nowadays I try and take control of every aspect of making my film. I like to work with a minimal crew and try and avoid anything too technically complex. While shooting Under the Sun we only had between 10 and 15 crew members on set.

I’m constantly trying to rediscover what works and what doesn’t work in the filmmaking process. I treat each film I make as an exercise, so making mistakes on that first film was a completely necessary experience.

Under the Sun, film still, Qiu Yang, 2014
Under the Sun, film still. Qiu Yang, 2014

Your film The World was selected to be part of the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Accelerator program, what did you learn during the program?

I learned a lot about the process of putting together your first feature film, mainly from a business point-of-view. I think this is extremely helpful to understand, especially as an independent filmmaker nowadays.

Mostly it gave me insight into how to get your film financed and how to sell it after its completion. It was like a step-by-step guide of the process from script to cinema screen. We heard from many working directors and sales agents and distributors both local and international. This was probably something that wasn’t a big focus at film school, but now that I’m working on my first feature project, it’s immensely helpful knowledge.

The film went on to be selected to screen at several international film festivals. Is the festival circuit important for emerging filmmakers?

I think so, but perhaps only if your film gets into some of the key ones. I’m not sure about the value of spending a lot of money on sending your film into festivals that no one has heard of.

What was the inspiration for your film Under the Sun?

The film is largely based on real people and events around me. As I said before, filmmaking is a way for me to deal with my own struggle. In this instance, the struggle to understand the human condition and the world around me. I was trying to depict this struggle onscreen so people can see the world through me and hopefully feel somehow as puzzled as I do, so we can all try, together, to better understand who we are as human beings, and the world we have created.

Under the Sun, film still, Qiu Yang, 2014
Under the Sun, film still. Qiu Yang, 2014

Under the Sun was shot entirely on location in China, was it difficult organising an overseas shoot?

It was quite difficult in the beginning of pre-production as I had neither resources nor contacts inside the Chinese film industry. The film industry over there isn’t very transparent at the moment. If you want to make a film in Australia, you can find information regarding crew, cast and working regulations online, whereas none of those are available online in China. There was also no film industry in my hometown, so all the equipment and professional crew had to come from Beijing or Shanghai.

I also wanted to cast the entire film with non-actors, who were a struggle to find so I felt like I was going in circles at the beginning. But after some lengthy research and with some of my Aussie crew coming to China, things started to move forward much faster. The rest of the process was almost easier than organizing a shoot in Australia because I was comfortable in my hometown and had a lot support from my family.

How does it feel to have the film selected to screen at Cannes Cinefondation?

Unreal! Even now I can still hardly believe it. I remember the day after I received the acceptance email from Cannes; I woke up and went to check my email again, in case it was just a dream. The whole thing feels like something that only happens in the news, not in my reality.

What advice would you give to new students who want to pursue a career in film?

To me, filmmaking is more like a lifelong art practice, not so much a career. I’m not sure if I’m able to give any advice other than try to be true and honest to yourself.

What are your goals for the next few years?

To make my first feature film.

(main image: Qiu Yang on location. Photo: Lillian Brown)

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.