a film by Leslie Tai

I know Grave Goods is a personal film for you. What was the process like making it?

The process was fast. I was in the Stanford MFA Documentary Program and I had to make a film in 10 weeks. Once I decided to do it, there was no time to think–I would have an idea, and then just do it, have an idea, and just do it. Maybe that was the only way I could have made the film. I was scared of doing my own voiceover, but I really wanted to do it. My professor Kris Samuelson said, “Go where you are afraid to go.” I thought, ok, go. I was pretty distraught throughout the making of it, especially having to watch tapes of my grandma dying, but it was really cathartic, in the sense that it allowed me to squeeze it all out, all of my love, and try to make something so immaterial have a shape.

Sentiment plays a huge role in the film. There’s a contrast between your voice over which is sentimental and the way you chose to present the objects which is quite empirical. Can you discuss the ideas behind your choices?

That’s funny, because I was actually trying not to sound too sentimental. For some parts of it, I had to say some pretty sappy things. I don’t feel bad about that. But the objects had a trajectory of their own. They were supposed to go from empirical to sublime. So it begins with the adult diapers, the no-rinse bath gels, the walker — because to me, these are painful objects that evoke their function as objects. But what about those objects of hers that I’ve coveted my whole life–those objects of my grandmother’s that contain her memories, her dreams, her raw emotion? I wanted to arrive at that kind of feeling, so I thought it was best to start with empirical, so the objects could undergo a change in your eyes.

Yes! That transformation for the viewer is what I loved about the film. There’s also this distance in the way you presented these objects and to some extent your grandmother, i.e. showing the archive footage of her thu a monitor (btw I loved the subtitles inside the small DV deck display) which I thought actually worked more to draw the audience closer to her. Can you talk about using the monitors and archive footage?

I was thinking a lot about the materiality of things—and the possibility that physical objects are containers for the soul. The archival footage I shot of my grandmother became very strange to me during that time. My physical reality told me she was gone, yet I fancied the idea that she was still living in those tapes, albeit in miniature version. Still, tapes will degrade over time, and then where will she go? So I chose to mediate her footage through the little monitor; I show you all of the tapes before I play them. And just when you are connecting with her image on that screen, I abruptly eject the tape, so that you’re stuck in a lurch. Those tapes were a metaphor for all of her other things. There’s a tiny piece of her living in them and every time I touch them, I know a bit of her is escaping. I had to make the film, I feel, before all of her managed to escape.

There’s not many personal films I can think of that is formally and stylistically like Grave Goods, I’m curious to know if you had any film or visual art references when making it?

I kind of love the aesthetic of 1970s ads with their bright colors, seamless backgrounds, and bold, serifed text, so that was an undeniable influence. There was also the matter of spinning objects, which I had been fantasizing about for quite some time, and I probably owe that to the Home Shopping Network.

Can you talk briefly about how you got into documentary filmmaking?

I took the History of Documentary Film survey course my sophomore year at UCLA with the indomitable Marina Goldovskaya, and I knew I had found what I had always been looking for. As a design major, I took a few design for video courses which really emphasized formal experimentation coupled with the really high standard of visual aesthetics coming out of the department. Later, with those work examples, I petitioned as an undergrad to get into Marina’s advanced documentary course at the graduate film school—and that is where I learned about storytelling and to make films that, as Marina would say, “scratch at your soul.”

Can you talk about your latest film The Private Life of Fenfen and its relationship to Grave Goods whether formally or thematically?

I think you could plot those two films on an evolutionary continuum marking my own creative development. In both films, I am revisiting characters whom I have made previous films about, each of whom I have amassed an unbelievable wealth of footage for, most of which I haven’t even been able to get through yet. So with each installment, I am trying to push what I can do with all this material and finding new modes of representation. The possibilities are endless. For years, I was really engaged in a movement that really eschewed professional modes of film production in China on sociopolitical grounds. Since emerging from that, I am much more interested in how form can also inform the content. Thematically, The Private Life of Fenfen is a huge departure from Grave Goods. I think it is a lot more dense, and I am trying to evoke issues of authorship, representation, exploitation, privacy, and the act of filmmaking; whereas Grave Goods is more or less a knee-jerk, gut-punch kind of film that rides on its emotional appeal.

What are you working on next?

Shockingly enough, I am developing a project that will incorporate the footage of my grandmother and Fenfen. How are the life and death of these two women, strangers to each other, intertwined?

Leslie Tai (b.1983) is an emerging Chinese-American filmmaker hailing from San Francisco, California. After graduating from UCLA with a B.A. in Design|Media Arts, Leslie moved to China in 2006. There, she earned her filmmaking chops in the underground Chinese documentary world as a student of Wu Wenguang, a founding figure of the New Chinese Documentary Movement. From 2007-2011, she made and exhibited films as an artist of Beijing-based independent art studio, Caochangdi Workstation. Leslie is a 2007 Fulbright Scholar to China in Filmmaking and a graduate of the MFA Program in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University. Her short films have premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, Visions du Réel (Nyon), International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), and The Museum of Modern Art.