NU alumna Jenny Shi reflects on the year of her award-winning documentary “Finding Yingying”

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Courtesy of Jenny Shi

A still from “Finding Yingying.” In 2020, director Jenny Shi won numerous awards for her first-ever feature film.

Olivia Alexander, Reporter

Jenny Shi’s (Medill M.S. ’17) film on the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, a Chinese international student at the University of Illinois, gained critical acclaim after a year-long festival run.

While the documentary’s filming wrapped before the pandemic, COVID-19 shutdowns affected its release and reception. Diane Quon, a producer of the film, said the year’s most exciting moment came when she heard the film would show at the highly esteemed South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW). Although the March-scheduled festival was canceled, SXSW honored Shi with the special jury recognition for breakthrough voice.

Before the film would show to any festival audiences, though, Shi wanted Zhang’s family to watch it first. Shi eventually asked some of her friends in China to travel to Zhang’s parents hometown and show them the film on a laptop. Shi and Shilin Sun, the film’s co-producer and cinematographer, were present through a video call. Shi said she was initially nervous that Zhang’s parents would not accept some parts of the film, but after watching together, they offered understanding feedback.

“Yingying’s father, he was very grateful that we made the film about Yingying,” Shi said. “Even though it was really difficult to rethink or just to recall the hardships they’ve gone through in the past few years, it is a story worth telling.”

Throughout the following months, “Finding Yingying” entered several festivals and received numerous accolades, including Best Documentary Feature at Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival and the Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Most recently, “Finding Yingying” won a Chinese Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Documentary and nominations in the Grand Jury Prize and Global Impact Award categories.

The film’s China premiere at the Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival also helped the team find viewers in China — a goal incredibly important to the filmmakers.

“The whole team is based in the US, and we never really have any publicity in China,” Shi said. “So that was amazing.”

Early on, the film was only available through festival viewings, limiting the amount of viewers drastically. To this end, Medill Prof. and film producer Brent Huffman said connecting with viewers in a virtual setting has been a unique challenge during the pandemic.

“It was tough, not being able to connect with audiences and meet with audiences face to face,” Huffman said. “But despite some of those tremendous hurdles, I think the film has really done incredibly well.”

In October, “Finding Yingying” had its Chicago premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF). Because most of the documentary’s crew are based in Chicago, and the story took place in Illinois, Shi described the experience as “a homecoming.” There, the law enforcement, reporters and family lawyers interviewed for the film were invited to see it for the first time.

“During that time, I got a lot of emails or text messages or Facebook messages about the audience feedback,” Shi said. “People would Facebook message me that they were really moved by the film, it was really touching and they felt like they got to know Yingying so much.”

Before the Chicago premiere, the team heavily promoted the film among Chinese international students who had heard and followed along with the story. Shi and her team used WeChat to gain attention from those students as well as Chinese Americans.

This fall, MTV Documentary Films acquired distribution rights to the film in a worldwide release excluding China, where the team wanted to handle publicity themselves, ensuring Zhang’s family would not be negatively affected. Until MTV broadcasts “Finding Yingying” on television, the documentary is showing in virtual cinemas across the country. But ultimately, the team hopes to show the film at universities.

“I think that is a goal for us,” Quon said. “To be able to show the film at different universities and talk with young people about the film.”

Until it is safe to connect with such audiences in person, Shi is spending her days working toward the production of another feature length film. Recently, she has been researching and identifying potential interviewees, sending Freedom of Information Act requests and considering searching for a collaborator in China.

In the upcoming year, as Shi continues to work toward her next feature project, she said she will be sure to approach filmmaking “as a learning process.” Throughout the year, Shi wants to spend time talking with experienced filmmakers and absorbing all she can. It is this eagerness that Quon admires in Shi as a journalist and director.

“I see in her this stamina and fearlessness that is needed to tell these important stories,” Quon said, “so I’d love for her to continue to do that, and I know that she’ll be able to accomplish them.”

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Twitter: @oliviagalex

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