AWFJ EDA AWARD @ DOXA 2017 Filmmaker Interview: Yan Su Chun on DROKPA

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yan chun suFilmmaker Yan Chun Su’s gorgeous observational film captures life on the Tibetan Plateau. The last of Tibet’s drokpa (nomads) lead herds of yak and sheep over hilly grasslands. No longer limitless and free- ranging, they move across sections of pasture, now allotted to them by the Chinese government. Read what Yan Chun Su has to say about the changing environment, nomadic life, organic filmmaking and her career.

How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

I’m very fond of people who live directly off the land as I think they can still feel the pulse of the planet. In 2011, not so long after I finished my last film, I became captivated by images of ruined civilization in a vast desert and felt like in many ways, many of our current cities would end up like that one day. I wanted to find a group of people living very close to a visibly changing environment so that in a microcosmic and direct way, we see what the future might be like for us all.

My search to realize those images started in the Gobi desert of Mongolia with camel herders. After two trips and a combined three months of filming, a geologist friend told me about these new and expanding deserts on the Tibetan plateau which I had not heard of before. I did some research, picked out a few locations and went. One day, toward the end of the day, my driver mentioned that he knew of another village that had a lot of desert on their land. When we arrived after a long bumpy ride near sunset, I was taken to a smoke-filled room with a group of Tibetan men who looked rather intimidating. Later I found out, they were all village chiefs gathering for a meeting that day. After they understood my intention, I was given the instruction to come back in two days.

Two days later when I returned, the head chief had two herders waiting to take me to see their desert. Riding on the back of a motorcycle on the road-less alpine grassland was an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. Once I saw the gigantic sand-hills, so shocking and beautiful I knew I had to film there. Images of nomads living at the shadow of the sand-hills were exactly what I was envisioning all along.

That was the start of a three years of filming relationship with the nomads, going back and forth to their village, entering their pasture, camp, tents, lives. Both of my rides that day, Samdruk and Dhargye, and their families, especially Samdruk’s step daughter Tamku became main characters in the film, as well as other members in their clan. I’m forever indebted to their acceptance, hospitality and generosity.

What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

I didn’t know at all the situation of desertification on the Tibetan plateau and how that would affect the world – nearly half of humanity depends on water from Tibet for survival. I also didn’t know the intricate relationships among the grasslands, the grazing animals, the nomads and their seasonal migrations, and how important it is to preserve that symbiosis.

What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

This is my first feature-length documentary and I’m basically a one-women crew so pretty much everything from camera work to sound to editing and storytelling was a learning process and I love doing them all. Because of the often windy condition, I had to try many types of microphone with different wind shields and I ended up recording a lot of wind sound, which I think became a character in itself in the editing process. I had an earlier career in engineering and it took me a long time to get somewhat comfortable with not seeing “results” for days or weeks on end, eventually realizing that the film has an organic growing process itself. I think it is important to surrender yourself to the process and be open to whatever happens.

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What were your biggest challenges?

It was difficult to manage the logistic, not knowing when things could happen. And also managing my own rather constant self-doubt.

Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

I think so, especially in Drokpa, two of the three main characters, Tamku and Yithan are women. Drokpa (which means nomads in Tibetan) women are rather shy and I think that me being female makes it easier for them to open up about themselves. I think all our histories and past experiences shape our perspective and being a female definitely plays a role. To what extend that affects the outcome of the film, it depends.

What are your plans for the future?

I would continue to explore using visual/sound expressions to tell meaningful stories. While I love observational filmmaking, for my future projects, I want to include some elements of experimental film to hopefully reach out deeper into the mind and soul of both myself and the viewers. My next film will explore the perception of boundaries, both physical and imaginative. I’m also interested in interactive displays and performances and hope to use those tools to help reinstate our creative relationship with nature.

Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

I was extremely fortunate to be under the tutelage of the late, great documentarian Les Blank when I worked on my last film. Drokpa would not have been completed without his inspiration and I dedicate this film to him. Other filmmakers of great influences and inspiration include Chris Marker, Shinsuke Ogawa, Agnès Varda, Kim Longinotto, just to name a few.

What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

I don’t think anybody is having it easy in making documentary films and I don’t feel qualified to give advice. If anything, lessons learned and notes to self for my own future projects include be extra resourceful, set no limits, build alliances and tell only the stories I have to tell.

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