Abby Sun: How did you learn about IFChina’s work, and how is it related to All About My Sisters?
Wang Qiong: In my second or third year of undergrad studying broadcast journalism and television, I was unhappy with the classes I was taking. The professors taught us how to use the camera, how to zoom in, zoom out, and how to record, how to edit—but not the reason to film. Then I was introduced by a friend to IFChina. When I got there, I saw people doing documentary photography or films, which was really new to me. One of the projects was called Story of Birth, and the idea was for literally everybody around the local community, or even further—people from different cities or different countries—to participate. I invited everybody I knew to interview their mothers about their birth story, and of course, I also participated in this project.
I took a [digital video] camera back home and interviewed my mother. I was surprised that she gave me so much information about the process of giving birth to me. She also talked about her other pregnancies, how hard it was for her to have my younger brother, and how hard it was for her to hide from the officials who were in charge of the one-child policy. Everything my mother spoke about I thought about for a long time. Then my older sister, Wang Li, sent me a message about her plan to abort the baby she was pregnant with if it was a girl. I thought about my mother’s story and about my younger sister, Jin, whose story was known openly in my family. At that point, I decided to make a film about my own family. You could say it was inspired by IFChina’s Story of Birth.
AS: I thought a lot about images and self-representation while watching All About My Sisters. Many of the conversations and family dinners take place in the lobby of your parents’ photo studio. In the background of these scenes there are photos behind you, and they’re doubling as both idealized family portraits but also advertisements for the family business. What did your parents understand of your documentary project? Their life also revolves around making images, but in this idealized way, right?
WQ: My parents understood that I was recording their activities, but they didn’t really understand what I was doing. They didn’t really know what documentary is and why people did that. They take photos as a livelihood, to make money, but I record for nothing. But regarding this story of the family photo studio inside the film, my father is super proud of his expertise in photographing family portraits. He even tried to teach me how to take a good family portrait—when everyone is in the studio and there’s a cameraman and everything is prepared, like a performance: smile and your family shows happiness and harmony. You can even do a second take if the first smile doesn’t look good. So there is a self-censorship among people inside this system, about how they want to be seen and remembered, which is also human nature. To some extent, I think the photo shop is a metaphor for China as a country. Documentary is something that I want to do to update what my father was doing—instructing people to show their best faces in front of the camera. For me, I want to see the complexity beyond the performance.
The camera, for me, is an encouragement to ask a question.
AS: The photo studio kind of engulfs everyone’s lives, including that of Jin, when your parents help her and her husband out by helping them start their own shop. You introduce Jin to the idea of documentary film—at the end of All About My Sisters, some of the footage is filmed by her. You also use a scene as a sort of bookend, when the camera swaps from your hands to hers. But the way it’s used makes it clear that Jin’s participation in the project is not one that leads to an easy resolution. Why was it important to you to have Jin holding your camera and to use these recordings in your film?
WQ: The camera, for me, is an encouragement to ask a question. In Chinese families, people don’t really like to sit down and have a serious conversation about the past. A camera gave me a reason, power, and encouragement to start to ask questions. So when I offer the camera to Jin, it is because I want to share this encouragement, because I wanted her to start asking questions too. I want her to question me, which is why the question she asked me is at the beginning of All About My Sisters: “Why are you making the film?” That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that switching the camera to Jin is a form of intimacy. When I was a child, I always felt that we were so different, as I have more than Jin has. She lives in the village, she has to labor in the fields, whereas I had nice clothes and everything was fancier in the city. From when I was a child, I wanted to share everything I had with her. So when I have the camera and its power, I want her to have it too. Although she took over the camera, she didn’t make a film. She didn’t ask many questions like I did, but she did accept one of the most important things in my life.
AS: Have you talked to your dad about how you made a family portrait as well?
WQ: I told my parents my intention of making this project is to mediate understanding between Jin and them, but I’m not sure they understand. I won’t show this film to them for ten or twenty years, because the relationship between my parents and Jin is more important than the film. There are things that Jin complained about my parents in the film, and then there are some things that my parents and my older sister Li complained about Jin, separately. If I show this now, I’m afraid that they will deliberately misunderstand. I’m afraid to destroy the improvements that I have made to mediate their relationship, because they’re much better than before.