By Janine McGoldrick
Filmmaker Sue Williams has a love affair with the city of Hong Kong. So when a friend introduced her to the Cantopop superstar Denise Ho, she knew she had the subject of her next film. But, what happens when current events upend the planned story arch of your film at the end of production?
Sue discussed just that during a July 2020 episode of NYWIFT Talks. Denise Ho: Becoming the Song started out as an intimate look at an openly gay Hong Kong singer and human rights activist. With years-long, unlimited access to her subject and a wealth of archival material, Sue explored Denise’s remarkable journey from a top international recording artist, who she calls the “Asian Lady Gaga,” to outspoken advocate for Hong Kong citizen’s rights to maintain their identity and freedom.
Sue said she was drawn to Denise’s compelling story because her public support of the 2014 Umbrella Movement led to her arrest and being blacklisted by China. The blacklist pressured sponsors to drop her and venues refused to let her perform. Sue wanted to chronicle Denise as she attempted to rebuild her career during her U.S., Canada and UK tour. Sue was close to a rough cut on the film when the 2019 Hong Kong protests erupted. She immediately realized she had a very different film on her hands and had to quickly pivot.
On a budget, Sue wasn’t able to return to the city to capture Denise’s participation in the upheaval, so she found a unique solution — Denise and her assistant shot the marches with their iPhones and sent Sue and her team the footage. They would hire a DP when Denise knew something important was going to happen.
“Filming was rollercoaster ride, very much on the fly,” Sue explained. Each time they had planned on wrapping up production another key event they wanted to capture would pop up such as Denise’s speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum and her performance at New York’s Town Hall. When it was finally time to take the footage back into the editing room and revise their original cut, she found the task daunting.
Like many other filmmakers, Sue believes that films are made in the edit room and this edit was a lot of work. Her team sifted through the original portions of the film that focused on Denise’s early years then slowly built out the film’s new structure. Going through all the new footage was very time consuming as it has to be imported, translated and compiled along ongoing news footage from CNN to help tell the detailed story of the uprising. The story kept going however, as with any project, you have to recognize when you have enough to finish your story. “It was a crazy seven to eight months,” laughed Sue.
Additionally, the power of China’s blacklist and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong posed several other obstacles to the production. It was difficult to get people to agree to go on camera, for fear of retribution, and fundraising got progressively more difficult. Kino Lorber picked up the film for a domestic virtual release, but Sue is still looking for European distribution and feels Asian distributors may be hesitant to release the film as well.
Three years after the initial meeting with Denise, her inspiring documentary makes its debut as Hong Kong continues to fight against restrictive regulations from China and Denise recons with her place within the country’s culture. The film’s release date of July 1, 2020 was scheduled months ago to coincide with the date of last year’s march marking the anniversary of the British 1997 turnover of Hong Kong to China not knowing China’s National Security Law would be go into effect at the same time. Serendipitous timing indeed.
Denise Ho: Becoming the Song is currently available on demand and you can watch the full discussion with Sue here:
Sue started Ambrica Productions in 1986. Under her leadership, Ambrica has produced awarding-winning films on a range of subjects, including feature-length documentaries about China which aired as stand alone specials on PBS, as well as two films for the PBS series Frontline. She has also directed biographies of two American icons, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Pickford, for American Experience. In 2011, she co-founded The Story Exchange to inspire women to achieve economic independence through entrepreneurship. Her films have aired on television in dozens of countries and played in festivals around the world. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including Cine Golden Eagles, Edgar Dale Screenwriting Awards, Hugo TV awards, Chris Awards. In 2016 she was awarded the Boston Globe Filmmaker Fund Award for Death By Design.
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