By Katie Chambers
Welcome to NYWIFT, Jasmine Yeshan Zhang!
Jasmine Yeshan Zhang was born and raised in Xinjiang, China and is now based in Brooklyn. She graduated from the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media department at School of Visual Arts in 2021.
As a Han Chinese, growing up in a region where a majority of the population is Muslim, she developed interests in other religions and subcultures. Her photographs tell stories about different religious communities.
During her studies at SVA, she expanded her interests on making documentary films. She has been working as an Assistant Editor for documentaries since graduation and is currently working on an archival-heavy doc-series. She is always looking for more opportunities for documentary/film editing.
Jasmine spoke to us about how her upbringing influenced her interest in other cultures, her transition from still photography to video, and what she hopes to achieve next.
Tell us about yourself – give us your elevator pitch!
As a Han Chinese, I grew up in a town where a majority of the population is Muslim – in Xinjiang, northwest China. I developed interests in cultures of the ethnic minorities. I always have a strong will to showcase my community through videos beyond the national propaganda in China. Having a journalism background from college, I’ve been telling stories for the voiceless communities.
With my desire and passion for telling stories about different religions and cultures, I did photo projects about Hasidic and Muslim cultures in NYC. After I took a film editing class at SVA, I discovered that video editing was a greater medium for me to tell stories. I made short documentaries about different cultural family dynamics.
With my goal to become an editor, I’ve been working as an Assistant Editor for a couple documentary projects and TV shows to expand my storytelling horizons.
I’d love to hear more about your interest in culture and religion is reflected in your work.
Being born and raised in a small town in Xinjiang, China, I grew up in a Muslim community as a non-Muslim Han Chinese. As an outsider, I always strive to tell stories fairly and respectfully attempting to limit the insertion of my own bias. I understand the significance of not overlooking minor stories because they are important. All stories are worth being told and stories can always be born from seemingly small details.
My upbringing in a multicultural community also contributed to my desire to tell cultural stories of a variety of people. A couple of years ago I created a short documentary of a Bangladeshi restaurant after seeing the mother-daughter relationship in the restaurant and its impact on the community that is dominated by Bangladeshi immigrants.
When I married my husband, for the first time in my life the concept of a multicultural community or family dynamic elevated to a new level for me: it became personal. Furthermore, witnessing the intercultural Russian American family dynamic of my parents-in-law brought me a deeper understanding of storytelling, by highlighting the differences but also the similarities different people have. This dynamic of my own relationship along with my parents-in-law is what inspired me to start and create my documentary: Dear Irina, Dear Paul.
You went to SVA to study photography, and then your interests expanded into documentary filmmaking. How did that transition start? What excited you about film?
During my graduate studies, I went to various mosques and synagogues to understand the Muslim and Hasidic Jewish communities in NYC, telling their stories through photography. Later, I realized that some voices were missing in my photos. I took film classes to improve my storytelling and then I discovered that what’s missing is the subject voice, the voice that can guide audiences through complex stories.
Video enables me to be more creative. My favorite part is that visuals always come with sounds, which give me a lot of space to try different possibilities. Sometimes sounds could be a better fit for a visual void and make the stories more complete.
I’d love to hear more about the two films you made at SVA, the 10-minute documentary about a Bangladeshi restaurant and your thesis film about intercultural relationship.
Welcome is a 10-minute documentary about a family-owned Bangladeshi restaurant in Jersey City, NJ. The documentary focuses on a mother who cooks Bangladeshi food from scratch and her immigrant experience of opening a shop in Jersey City as well as the relationship with her daughter who grew up in the United States. To unpack these dynamics, the video focuses on this distinct cuisine.
Dear Irina, Dear Paul is a 40-minute documentary about my parents-in-law’s intercultural relationship. My mother-in-law, Irina, is from Moscow and my father-in-law, Paul, is from NYC. The film starts with how they met in Russia, a fascinating story of where she was his guide in an era where the West and the East were at odds (USA vs USSR). The film then explores how they fell in love, settled in America, developed their relationship, and showcases moments from their present-day life. The film explores the concept of cultural differences in marriage and the passage of time through in an intimate tone, family dynamic of immigrants in America. Additionally, the film also allows me to reflect upon my own intercultural marriage.
What was your favorite moment making these films? And your biggest challenge?
My favorite moment is looking through all the footage after shooting every time. I shot tons of footage and lots of vérité especially for Dear Irina, Dear Paul. When I look through all the footage, I always discover some small, interesting stories or conversations that I didn’t notice while shooting, which can influence the structure of my rough cut later on. Additionally witnessing my parents-in-law being emotional about reconnecting with their past was special.
The biggest challenge is always playing multiple roles at the same time. I made both films by myself during graduate school. I was the camera and sound operators, as well as the producer and editor. I had my husband being a sound operator for Welcome, but he couldn’t help me for Dear Irina, Dear Paul since he was one of the subjects in my film. Dear Irina, Dear Paul was shot during the pandemic and the masks outside definitely added more challenges in capturing clear audible sound.
What is the best advice you ever received? And the worst?
After I shot all the footage and struggled with where to start, my advisor suggested that I categorize my footage by different holidays and write different scenes on cards and then hang them on the wall. I followed her advice and spent a lot of time playing with the cards, which helped me determine the basic story structure for my film. I learned how to visualize stories during editing.
The worst advice came from one of my professors. She said I shouldn’t include my mother-in-law talking about Russian Orthodox tradition because the Soviet Union was communist, which doesn’t co-exist with the Russian orthodox church. The truth is that the Soviet Union was influenced deeply by the Russian orthodox church in various perspectives, and I saw the cultural influence on my mother-in-law. I didn’t follow her advice: the influence of religion is a central part of my film and helps viewers get a better understanding of who my mother-in-law is.
What inspired you to join NYWIFT? How do you hope to engage with the organization?
I first heard about NYWIFT from my fellow editor friends. I would like to connect with like-minded people in the industry, learning from other professional’s experiences and unique perspectives of certain topics as well as sharing my perspectives. Additionally, I would love to get involved in the TV/Film industry and be a part of the woman filmmaker community.
As a woman that is part of a minority group, I understand that being supportive of each other is significant for fellow peers’ and self-achievement. I would love to attend more events that are held by NYWIFT, networking with people in the industry. I will also go to more screenings that support people in the community, sharing my thoughts and exchanging knowledge with people.
And what is next for you?
Currently as an Assistant Editor working on documentaries and reality TV shows, I want to become an editor down the road and do more creative storytelling. I’m learning from and practicing my editing skills with editors I work with, trying to get co-editing opportunities on TV shows/films.
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