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Cai Lun's Key: How the Kam People Preserved the Earliest Papermaking - Marie Anna Lee Interview

Tell us about yourself. How did you become an artist?

I come from a family of Czech illustrator and graphic designer Alena Nievaldová. I was always surrounded by art. I attended art exhibitions from an early age and enjoyed learning about art. My mom always said it was hard life to be an artist and encouraged us to seek what interested us. I focused on studying languages in school and did not think of becoming an artist early on. When I moved to United States to study advertising, something one could not study in Czech at that time, I was no longer surrounded by art (as one is in Prague and Czech in general), and I felt the need to make my own. I started taking art classes as electives at the university and eventually decided to get a second degree in graphic design as I enjoyed the challenge of creating art to communicate a message to a specific audience.

What was your first job in the art field?

When I came to the university, I needed to find a job to get by but my visa only allowed me to work on campus. A friend worked at the University Computer Center there and said there was a student design group there. Mind you, I did not have any experience with design but figured if my mom can do it so can I. It definitely sounded more fun than flipping burgers. I talked to the head designer and she told me if I can learnt Adobe Illustrator, an industry standard program for designers, she would give me a try. So, I learnt the program and was hired. I enjoyed the work so much that I decided to make it my profession and ended up doing what my mom does. We still laugh about it.

What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?

When I was little, I loved to read fairy tales and later stories in general. It allowed me to dream and learn about the world that is, was and could be. Stories give the audience choice however to form opinions and naturally guide them towards knowledge. People relate to other people stories.

Director Marie Anna Lee

I want people to come to their own conclusions and learn from other people’s lives and stories. I want them to go to places they would never go and meet people they would never meet through my films. I want them to feel the connections with other people and places and find similarities between cultures. When we are connected, we become more understanding and accepting of each other’s differences.

I have always loved history and I believe knowing what came before us can help us make better decisions. When I came to Dimen, the Kam minority village, I was stricken by the oral histories that were passed down through generations in songs. My short films are my way of capturing the stories I found there.

Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?

I approach a problem from a design thinking perspective, trying to find a holistic solution that solves the problem on multiple levels. I am not a filmmaker by training but my project needed to be made into a film to get its story across so I learnt to make films.

In 2007, the school where I taught was approached to document a fading culture in China and a colleague and I was put in charge of organizing documentary trips where students filmed and photographed the existing culture in a small Kam minority village. I fell in love with the place and started working on preserving their cultural heritage.

I apprenticed with women artisans in the village and documented their crafts over several expeditions. As a designer and artist, I had a rudimentary understanding of some of the crafts and was a fast learner. I learned all the tedious details of the crafts that are often skipped in demonstrations and made sure I could replicate their work. I wrote a book that I supplied with my photographs and technical illustrations. I am working on an online archive of the photographs and video recordings.

The book and the archive however did not allow me to tell the story of the crafts in a way that people who never did the craft could easily understand it. Only film could. So, I learnt a new medium again and ventured into filmmaking, telling the story of the Kam women artisans.

Besides documenting their art, I wanted to boost the Kam people’s local identity and help the women artisans earn sustainable living. I started workshops for children and adults in the village. I also launched an artisan cooperative with the women, helping them create products based on their aesthetics and craft technologies and marketing them in the US.

The project snowballed into something much bigger than me learning some crafts and writing about that experience.

Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?

I have been influenced by Jiri Trnka, a brilliant Czech illustrator and animator and the stories he told through his films. I love his artistic style. It is so much better than Disney. His use of satire is poignant and his message is timeless and relevant. I wish everyone learned from The Hand, a satire about a hand forcing an artist to create the way it wants it to. I have also admired Karel Zeman’s fantastic worlds that he translated into his films like Journey to the Beginning of Time. His special effects were fabulous.

I have learned much from S. Luisa Wei, a documentary filmmaker based in Hong Kong. She oversaw filmmaking students when we took them to China with us. I observed her interviewing subjects, filming events and just walking around the place to find someone interesting to talk to. She had a natural way of making people want to talk to her and uncovering interesting stories and making connections where others did not see them.

How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?

We are seeing a significant shift as it is more acceptable to work remotely, at least part of the time. Meetings that used to be held in person are often held on Zoom. Internships can be also done remotely nowadays. I completed my films during the pandemics and I found it easy to collaborate and communicate with my team remotely via the tools made more main-stream at that time.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?

Take time to listen and understand your audience to see what drives them and what interests them and then tailor your work to that understanding. Do not be afraid to try new directions and new media. Do not stop learning.

Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?

The audience can relate to the stories and the people in them much easier than through other media so yes, I truly believe that stories told through films can change the world. Films have been used by dictators like Hitler in past to influence masses and shape their beliefs. We therefore have a moral responsibility not to manipulate the audience into believing lies but rather to allow people to think for themselves based on the evidence we present and the stories we tell.

What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?

People tend to watch more films from the comforts of their homes. Social media are booming as well. People are looking for fresh, authentic and creative voices in those instances. Multimedia productions are growing as well including VR and AR. Calls for diversity in the society have led to films told from diverse perspectives and people spending more time by themselves and reflecting on their lives have led to a call for more social commentaries.

Please tell us about your upcoming projects.

I am going to be illustrating a book on the University of the Pacific’s history in Stockton that my colleagues are writing in near future. And I will be working on the Kam minority archive as the first three short films on the Kam crafts are complete. I have two more films to create but I need to go back working on the archive first. And I might do a feature on Kam crafts in the more distant future, especially if I can go back to the village and film fresh footage.


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