Meet MNFF: Alumni Interview with Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

Welcome back to Meet MNFF, a biweekly series of interviews with award-winning Festival alumni. Today, we chat with Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, whose film Finding Yingying won Best Documentary Feature at MNFF6 in 2020. Finding Yingying tells the story of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese student who came to the U.S. as an aspiring young scientist and teacher – only to disappear from the campus within weeks of her arrival. The film closely follows the journey of Yingying’s family and boyfriend to unravel the mystery of her disappearance and seek justice for their daughter while navigating a strange, foreign country. 

MNFF’s Sophie Hochman caught up with Shi to discuss navigating a virtual film festival experience, bonding with Yingying’s family, and following first responders amidst the pandemic for a new documentary project. 

You screened Finding Yingying at MNFF in 2020, which must have been a very unusual experience. What was it like taking that film on a virtual festival circuit? 

Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival was actually the first festival we attended. The film was supposed to premiere at South By Southwest, and then we had several festivals lined up, but when COVID hit, they all got cancelled or postponed. So Middlebury was the first festival we screened Finding Yingying at. I was a bit nervous about the audience reaction, but I’m glad that the response was pretty positive. I received Facebook messages and emails from audience members telling me that they loved the film and were deeply moved by the film. And after that, we had a lot of festivals in October 2020, which was when a lot of the spring and summer festivals had been rescheduled to. I think I attended over 13 festivals in October, which wouldn’t be possible if we were in a normal environment. So I think the good thing about virtual festivals is that you can be at two festivals at once. But on the other hand, you really miss interacting with the audience. It’s been over a year since we got into the pandemic and we have never had a physical screening of Finding Yingying. So we are planning on having some sort of special event, maybe in Chicago, so at least we can meet the audience in person, and watch the film together on the big screen. 

I was hoping we could talk about Finding Yingying a bit. What compelled you to film a documentary about Yingying’s case? 

I got a message about Yingying’s disappearance in my college alumni group chat. She and I didn’t know each other, but we graduated from the same university, so that made me feel connected to her. I also learned that she had only been in the U.S. for six weeks, so she was relatively new. That immediately reminded me of my own experience when I first came here. I was really lonely, and I knew how difficult it was for a foreigner to navigate a new country on her own, so I was really worried about her safety. At first I was just like anyone else, spreading the word about her disappearance, posting her information on social media. Then her family arrived in the U.S. to stay at Urbana-Champaign, and there were a lot of local volunteers helping them. At the time I was studying journalism at Northwestern, and I was in a documentary journalism class. As a journalism student, I was curious about what was going to happen – especially because of the connection between Yingying and me. I decided to run down to Champagne to see what I could do. I started as a volunteer, visiting the family, and I started to think that maybe I should capture something with my camera, so I reached out to the volunteer groups. That’s where I met Shilin Sun, who was the co-producer of the film. We decided to start documenting what was going on. We realized that despite the media covering updates in the investigation, the story of Yingying and her family was really missing from the news coverage. I thought that I should do something to document their journey. From the family’s perspective, they had a fear that people would eventually forget about them and forget about Yingying, and they didn’t even know whether the FBI could actually find her. So they felt like it was a good idea to allow us to document their journey. 

I imagine that filming content like that would require a lot of trust between you and your subjects, especially her family. How did you build that trust? 

So, like I said, I didn’t approach them as a filmmaker who wanted to make a feature length film of her story. At the time, I didn’t even know what I was going to do with the footage. I was in school, so there was maybe a short-term goal of putting together a short video for my school assignment, but I never thought about following the family for over two years. Our relationship really started with us as volunteers, so it wasn’t like a filmmaker-subject relationship. From the family’s perspective, they just needed someone who could speak Chinese to spend time with them. They felt comfortable having me there, and most of the time I spent with them was without a camera. It took us some time to actually bring up the conversation about maybe filming together. So when we started filming, we started with their search for her. They thought that whatever footage we captured could be useful to them. When they were out searching for her, maybe they would miss something, but we would have the footage to reference. We didn’t know at the time, but we actually captured the suspect in our footage, so it was helpful to the family. At some point, we told them that we wanted to make it longer. We made it very clear to them that this would be a film about Yingying and about the family’s experience. We also told them that we wanted to make some concrete impact with this film after it was finished. I also made it clear that they would be able to watch the film first and give us feedback before we showed it at any public screenings. I think that’s how we officially started building the relationship, gradually.

You very delicately balanced telling the story without making a true crime documentary. How did you navigate that balance?

In the first few months, it was very difficult to maintain that balance. Honestly, I didn’t really think about how I could make this film not about true crime at first, because what we had at that time was all about the investigation and the family. It was when we discovered Yingying’s diary that we thought, “Oh, maybe we can really make this film about Yingying herself.” We didn’t ask Yingying’s family for access to the diary at first, because we thought that was too private, too personal, and we didn’t want to do anything without knowing what we were going to do with it. But I was still regularly visiting the family and really felt the pain and the hardship they were going through. Yingying’s parents, colleagues, and friends all talked a lot about who she was. I was really curious about why she had affected so many people around her. So we asked for her diary and the family gave it to us. When I read it, it just blew my mind. You always heard good things about her from other people, but she showed her struggle and vulnerability in her diary, and I just found that we had so many similar experiences as young Chinese women, chasing our dreams in the US. That was really moving. 

In post production, we had a lot of discussions about how much we really wanted to talk about the crime. The audience wanted to know more about the crime, because we know true crime is fascinating and it’s really popular. But we’d already decided that it was going to be a film about who Yingying was, and we didn’t want to glorify the perpetrator. So we decided to only include the basic facts – just enough for the audience to understand what had happened. Even for basic facts, we tried to reveal that information to the audience in a creative way. In the third act of the film, it was actually me doing a voiceover revealing what exactly happened to her. In the early cut, we actually had the prosecutors talk about the crime, but we just felt like that was too cold. So we made the choice to have me do it instead. We had this creative choice in terms of how to balance the crime in the story and how to tell a more human version. 

What have you been up to since the festival? 

Early this year, I worked on two projects with two teams in China, both about COVID. One of them is a feature length documentary about the global efforts to combat the pandemic, and I was in charge of the U.S. story. We went to different cities in the U.S. to follow first responders. It felt very different reading news articles about first responders, and actually seeing them working up close. I really admired the risks they were taking to help others. When we were following them, I didn’t sense any negativity. What surprised me was that they were all very positive about the situation and about the work they were doing. That really inspired me. Another thing I found was that because we went to two different cities, New York and Atlanta, they had different political backgrounds and attitudes towards reopening the economy and things like that. So it was also very interesting to see how a diverse group of people was thinking about the pandemic, and how we should deal with our lives, and how we should balance the economy and the people’s health. I wasn’t vaccinated when I was following them, and I went with my friend Shilin who also worked on Finding Yingying. It was basically just us on the crew, so the whole time I was really worried about his safety, because he was the cinematographer. Sometimes when we had to get on the ambulance, it was him who was sitting with the patient in the back, and I was sitting in the front seat. We were definitely taking risks. But I just felt like it was a historical moment. When we think about this year, or these two years, after 10 years, I felt like this was something important to do as a storyteller. Just think about the first responders: they’re saving people’s lives on the frontline, and I think it was an honor just to document their journey.