Here at The Ladies Network, we couldn’t be more excited for up-coming female-centric film festival, For Film’s Sake, and perusing their line-up of incredible work by female film makers is sending our excitement levels through the roof. One of the films featured on FFS’s stellar program is Beijing Being, a film directed and written by English/Australian filmmaker and actress Emma Jaay. Informed by her nomadic lifestyle and experiences as a foreigner living in Beijing, the film premiered at Montreal World Film Festival, screened at NYC Independent Film Festival in New York and will be screening in the Chinese Garden of Friendship on the 27th of April as part of the FFS festival. Beijing Being is a moving, reflective exploration of life as an expat and a meditation on the constant change that is intrinsic to this experience. Filmed in the backstreets of Beijing, the plot centres on Sophie, a young blogger and artist who has made Beijing home, but is finding it difficult to accept the departure of her best friend, Martin, who was forced to leave China due to a visa crackdown.
Through the frequent use of flashbacks, we witness the easy closeness and comfort that defined Sophie and Martin’s friendship and watch as Sophie grapples with the platonic, and at times not so platonic, love that she feels for him. The film’s exploration of close friendship and the infatuation one can feel for a friend, despite their inability to ever return your feelings, calls into question the often rigid ways we define love, friendship and sexuality and draws attention to their fluid nature.
Surrounded by a creative group of foreigners and Chinese artists, Sophie slowly works her way through the multitude of emotions that Martin’s absence has evoked – anger, frustration, fear, loneliness, uncertainty – and comes through the fog to create a vibrant, joyful cabaret as an ode to a city that she loves but will never truly belong to. Nostalgic and sweet while simultaneously reinforcing the importance of self-love, independence and determination, Beijing Being is a heart-warming watch and a fascinating insight into the minutiae of daily life as an expat in Beijing.
Beijing Being’s screening is taking place on the 27th of April at 6.30pm in Darling Harbour’s iconic Chinese Garden of Friendship, and will be the first ever screening held in the gardens, adding depth and complexity to the film’s exploration of Chinese culture and the western and eastern experiences of it. Screening alongside Beijing Being that night will be Ann Hui’s film Night & Fog and several visual arts and media installations will also be featured. This unique, one-off event will provide the audience with valuable insight into Chinese culture through the mediums of music, film, art and language and really, who wouldn’t want to watch a film while sitting amongst the tranquillity of the Chinese Garden of Friendship? Head to the FFS website to purchase your tickets and while you’re at it, like them on Facebook and Instagram to keep in the loop with all the other fantastic events and screenings they have planned.
We chat to Beijing Being director, writer and actress Emma Jaay about the process of creating the film, the blurry line between friendship and love, and what needs to change in the film industry.
Hi Emma! Congratulations on Beijing Being, it’s a beautiful exploration of life as an expat in Beijing. I visited Beijing late last year and was blown away by its vibrancy and life, I guess I wasn’t expecting that I’d be so aesthetically inspired by the city. When you first moved to Beijing did you have any preconceived notions about what living there might be like?
Not really, I knew China a bit, I had lived in Xi’an for just over a year previously and had visited Beijing maybe once, so for me Beijing was The Capital, the place where things happened. I also knew there were lots of foreigners there compared to Xi’an. And that it was very very big. So I guess I expected a similar kind of chaotic messy energy, but more, and I expected to like it.
How much of the film is autobiographical?
Well, I was a foreigner in Beijing so that’s the knowledge I was drawing on. A lot of the film came from conversations with other foreigners and local Chinese friends about what living in Beijing meant for them. Common themes were always popping up from both: the transience – of the people and the places, the feeling of insecurity of the locations (as in everything could be taken away/ demolished at any moment). I think especially at that moment in time in the city, it was a time of a change-over people wise, so lots of friends of mine were losing quite long-term Beijing friends and Chinese friends talked of having studios/businesses demolished because the land was needed for something else. The year before there was a crackdown on visas, with police coming around checking foreigners in their homes, as well as police raiding bars checking for drugs. So I just drew on these stories, this transience, this under layer of some kind of paranoia and resistance to paranoia – everyone clinging to normalcy as they slide off the cliff.
I’m aware that everyone that was involved in both the making of and acting in the film were volunteers. What was the process of getting them involved in the film like?
It was nice, very fluid very natural. I had a best friend character written with a different name, thinking it might be for someone else – a friend who was leaving- but it didn’t quite fit. Then I met Martin at a party and the energy was just right, so I told him the idea and he immediately agreed. Even though he was leaving too, which made timing the shooting difficult. With the cinematographer it was the same – I think this story of the transience of our lives in Beijing was one he also felt needed telling. Then a Chinese director friend came on board as a producer, because I’d helped him on his film, so we had equipment and a sound crew from him.
How would you explain what a Hutong is to someone who’s never been to Beijing?
Literally, a Hutong is a small alley. In them are smaller alleys that used to be part of traditional courtyard houses. They are around the centre of the city in a grid formation and there used to be more. Figuratively, at least for me, they are the heart of the city and what makes Beijing special. It makes me sad to see them torn down or redeveloped to become touristic areas.
What was the hardest part of making the film?
One hard part was it was too true, everyone kept leaving! Both cast and crew for different reasons were leaving or going away so unable to proceed with the shoot. The other hard part was just maintaining the energy to keep going through the whole post production process. To keep caring and stubbornly believing that it’s worth it to make this film. We did a kickstarter which was hard but also super nice, and finished the post production in Australia, which was good, to involve other young Australian artists, and to see which parts of the film were too “inside” and didn’t translate.
The way the film represents the fragility and intensity of love within a friendship is really moving. Do you think there’s often a blurry line between the love that exists in a very close friendship vs. the love that exists in a romantic relationship?
I think there can be, because friendship is a kind of love. For some people the friendship love is where they give the main part of their emotion, which I guess is where this line can blur. I think it’s a question of support actually, and context. In this context yes they were friends, but also somehow everything to each other because of the context of being foreigners together in the city, and the need to support each other in that. So an intensity is added that blurs the line because you become what a romantic partner might be, the main support person.
Beijing Being reinforces what many of us already know – that these huge, predominantly male creative teams that dominate the film industry are not necessary to create amazing work. What types of changes do you think we need to see in the film industry in order to cultivate more opportunities for women?
I think as a woman in film you’re already in resistance, just by proceeding you are resisting this mostly-male situation. I think it’s always easy to stop with this kind of work, whether you’re male or female actually, as it’s often just you alone pushing the thing. And maybe for women it can feel harder to be there standing alone pushing your project. I think the industry is changing as more women are willing to go there, but it needs to change its expectations – too often I say I am doing film and people think it means I’m an actress, not the director. It should be expected that the woman on set can be the gaffer or the cinematographer or director or actor or whatever, and women should feel yes they can do whichever of these things they choose or don’t do any of the things because they choose. Not because they must/must not.
How difficult did you find balancing the three different roles of writer, director and actor? If you make another film, what would you do differently?
Ah writer-director I like, because the second we are shooting I am without a script so it’s better it was me that wrote it. Especially with non-actors like Martin, for me it’s better to understand the emotional kernel of the scene and just let him use his words at that moment. Actor-director I would not do again. I like acting but not when I should be directing, I need to be fully in it and directing. I’d like to watch both/all the people, the whole scene. Actually I think acting helps my directing because it’s physical, and so somehow you can understand the space because you’re moving in it. But I like to move in it to understand then go behind the camera to see and understand, not stay there not seeing.
What’s next for you?
I’m preparing now to shoot in Bosnia Herzegovina in order to finish my time at Béla Tarr’s film factory program in Sarajevo. Then let’s see. I have lots of ideas for shootings but actually it can be good to assist another more experienced filmmaker for a while, to keep learning. But for sure in my future work I’d like to keep my connection with Asia, and China in particular. I feel very at home in China, even as a foreigner, and I like that I can make some kind of small window for people who maybe haven’t been there or experienced it, or experienced it differently, to peep through.