Documentary Filmmaker Wen-jie Qin

By Cynthia Close


"It wasn't an overnight decision to become a filmmaker. I have dreamed about making films of my own but never thought I would have the opportunity or talent for filmmaking." So responded Arlington, MA based Wen-jie Qin when I asked about her decision to become a filmmaker. Born in China and growing up during the Cultural Revolution under Mao has given Wen-jie a unique perspective on the world. It has influenced her filmmaking in ways that she continues to discover.

Wen-jie's parents were school teachers who expected the highest academic achievement from her, within the rigid requirements of a traditional Chinese education which demanded total obedience to authority. Luckily, they also believed in the importance of the arts and culture. They developed a complex curriculum for her after school education consisting of calligraphy, writing essays and poetry, drawing, and music lessons. They provided whatever books they could find to expand her intellectual and artistic horizon. She ventured into both classical Chinese and Western cultural traditions and was fascinated by different world views which stood in stark contrast to the simplistic but repressive values practiced in her own society. There was a dramatic contrast between the rigid confinement in social life during the 1970's under Mao and the free imaginative life of her own mind. Wen-jie was a star pupil but was rebelling inside against the tyranny and brutality she experienced at school.

In 1985 Wen-jie went to Beijing University and graduated in 1989. Those four years happened to be a creative and exciting period in contemporary Chinese intellectual history. There was a revival of interest in traditional Chinese culture and at the same time fervent interest in Western culture. Wen-jie was both a participant and witness of the phenomenal student movement in 1989. She saw how closely related her own quest for freedom was with the search of Chinese intellectuals and the people as a whole. With help from a professor from the US she escaped from Beijing three months after the Tiananmen crack down and went to Kenyon College in Ohio. A year later she went to Harvard Divinity School to pursue graduate studies in religion.

In the spring of 1994, the first year of her doctoral program in the Study of Religion at Harvard she read about a course on video making offered by the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. She went to an introductory meeting with instructor Professor Richard Rogers and was immediately taken by the curriculum as well as the personality of Rogers. Wen-jie had never even held a video camera in her hands before she took Rogers' class but it didn't take long for her to realize that this is the tool she had been searching for. She describes her immense excitment when she looked through the view finder and moved with the camera. It was a sense of "calling" that she immediately felt, a calling for taking on a new path. For Wen-jie filmmaking is a holistic way of making sense of life and representing life. She credits Dick Rogers who, out of a kind heart, initiated her onto the path of film. Rogers remained a teacher, friend, and critic for her till he passed away last summer. Rogers introduced Wen-jie to Robert Gardner, who became a major source of inspiration and support in her documentary filmmaking career. She became a member of the Film Study Center and recieved grants to make films in China. She regards Rogers and Gardner as her two guardian angels on the tortuous path of filmmaking, and the Film Study Center as her artistic home at Harvard.
I first met Wen-jie several years ago when she had just finished her third film, WOMEN BEING, which looks at women's attitudes towards beauty and sexuality in contemporary China. She was still a student at Harvard but was beginning to look for a way to distribute her films to a wider audience. Her work showed great promise and fit right in with the cross-cultural documentary tradition of Documentary Educational Resources. We decided to offer her a distribution contract for all three films, SPROUTS OF CAPITALISM IN CHINA, WE ARE NOT BEGGARS and WOMEN BEING. They have been screened at international festivals and conferences and have won several awards. Her most recent and most intimate film, TO THE LAND OF BLISS won the Award for Technical Excellence in Filmmaking from the Roxbury Film Festival and an Award of Commendation from the Society of Visual Anthropology. It was also featured at the MFA as part of the New England Film and Video Festival. Wen-jie is currently in Europe making the rounds of festivals where TO THE LAND OF BLISS is being presented. It has been a dream of hers to go with a backpack from country to country and cover the entire Continent; her film has provided her with an excuse to do it. She has several new ideas for films but is content for the moment to immerse herself in life.