How I Got Here (Nanfu Wang GR '22 keynote)
By Nanfu Wang
This keynote talk was delivered at Getting Real '22 and was published as part of Documentary's Winter 2023 issue. To view the video recording, click here.
I wanted to share with you some stories of my journey of being a documentary filmmaker—particularly the mistakes, the struggles and the failures.
Coming to America
Before I even began my career, when I came to the US in 2011, I had no idea what a documentary was or what my future would be. I was 26 years old, and all I knew was that I wanted to become a journalist so I could report on the injustice I had witnessed in China. I went to Ohio University on a scholarship, majoring in Media Studies. It was a graduate program focused on media theory. I asked a freshman teacher if I could sit in her video production 101 class. In the first class, she played a video and asked the students to raise their hands when they saw a cut. Every few seconds, the entire class would raise their hands. I was lost and confused; I didn’t know what they were seeing on the screen that I didn’t see. Nothing seemed wrong. I didn’t know what a cut was.
That was 2011. Then I took a documentary class and saw documentaries for the first time. I was amazed by how compelling and impactful they could be, so I decided that it was something I wanted to do.
So, I applied to a documentary program at NYU’s journalism school. The program was a year and a half, and we needed to make a 30-minute thesis documentary for graduation. During the summer of the first year, I went back to China to film. The film would eventually become my first feature, Hooligan Sparrow. But it took a long time.
Making Hooligan Sparrow: The Grant Application Process
When I graduated, I had a rough cut of the film, but I had no idea what my next steps should be and how to to bring the film to an audience. A professor asked if I had thought about applying for post-production grants. I said, “No.” I didn’t know that post-production grants existed. He said, “Have you heard of Sundance?” I said, “No. What is Sundance?” He said, “I’m going to write it down for you, and you can Google it when you go home.” That night, I went online and was amazed to find out that there were grants for finishing a film. And those applications were free. I started making a list of all the grants that I could find on Google, and I applied to each one of them.
I had no idea how to create a budget. One of the grants that I applied for was from ITVS, which offered up to $250,000 to finish a film. I tried my best to come up with numbers—color collection, $500; sound mixing, $500. My total budget for the film ended up being $46,000. I didn’t know how much things cost, and it never occurred to me that I should have a salary too. I shot, edited, transcribed and subtitled myself.
And then, I got rejected by every grant that I applied for.
Learning from Rejection; Learning To Survive
In the meantime, I had to pay the bills. As an immigrant, I struggled to find a job. Most of my job applications never got a response. Very few employers wanted to sponsor the visa. When I finally got an interview for a job editing a fundraising sample, the producer told me, “You know, all our interviews are in English, and we’re concerned you won’t be able to understand the dialogue.”
This was a low point for me—for my career, certainly, but also for my sense of self. It didn’t seem to matter how effectively I demonstrated to people how capable I was. They saw me—how I looked and how I sounded—and reacted with skepticism. And this wasn’t even the end of the rejections! Shortly after, I applied for a job taking attendance at an after-school program, which paid $8 an hour. I was rejected for that too. In the three months after I graduated with my third master’s degree, I made $340 total.
All this time, I kept revising Hooligan Sparrow, editing on the computer in my apartment, hoping that one day someone would see the film. A steady stream of rejected grant applications kept coming in. It never stopped being hard, and the stress and uncertainty were relentless. But I kept revising the film, kept applying for grants, kept believing that the story I was telling was important and would find its way out into the world.
In 2014, I paid $140 to attend an event during Gotham Week called “Meet the Decision Makers.” It was a lot of money to me. But I thought, Maybe I could meet the funders face to face and tell them about the film, and then they’d be interested. I printed out my proposal and put the rough cut of the film on DVDs. There was one funder at each round table and 10 filmmakers eager to pitch their projects. I didn’t know how to pitch. The concept of “pitching” was not part of my culture and background. When the event was over, I asked some of the funders if they’d want to take my proposal and DVDs. They said no. I remember standing outside of the building with a full bag of proposals and DVDs, thinking, Should I throw them into the trash?
By 2015, I was working two part-time jobs during the day, and I kept revising the film at night and during weekends. I re-applied to some of the grants that rejected me.
Then, Sundance called. They were awarding my film a post-production grant. It still feels like a miracle that they chose my film. I had no résumé, no other experienced members on my team, and I had not made anything before. I was grateful that they even read my application at all, let alone awarded it a grant.
What I do know is, If I’d given up after the first time they rejected my film, and after all of the other rejections, it’s likely that I never would have finished my film.
Making a documentary is hard. Inevitably there will be moments of self-doubt, desperation, disappointment, fear. When I was on the verge of giving up, I remembered the people in the film who had trusted me with their time and stories. I remembered what I’d seen in China while making the film. Every time I looked through my footage, I saw the faces of the activists who were still struggling to fight something so much more powerful than themselves. I remembered why I chose documentary filmmaking. I knew that I wanted the film to make a difference, and I knew that somehow, I had to keep trying.
Hooligan Sparrow premiered at Sundance in 2016. It was touching to see how strongly people responded to the film. They cried in theaters, and emailed me, asking how the activists were doing and how they could help. Many of the activists were in prison at the time. I was hopeful that if the film gained enough exposure, the Chinese government would have to release the imprisoned activists. If I ever imagined what “success” for a documentary was, this must have been the first moment where I thought the film was successful. The film premiered at a top festival, people were seeing it; now all I had to do was sit back and watch it change the world.
The film did receive a lot of media coverage and generated wide discussion among international human rights organizations. But the Chinese government didn’t release the activists. Instead, they threatened my family, telling them to warn me not to speak about China’s human rights in media interviews. Several months went by after my film came out, and nothing changed for the people in the film. I began to feel disappointed and started to question whether films were capable of inspiring the kind of change I imagined.
As I attended more and more screenings, I met with audiences from all over the world. Every now and then, there would be a Chinese person among them—a student who studied abroad, or someone who worked overseas. They came up to me in tears, saying that the film changed the way they saw the country.
I knew how they felt. Making the film transformed the way I saw China. That’s the power of film: It allows people to see other people and places in a new way. One of the realizations that came to me after making my first documentary is that films are capable of creating change, but it probably will be much more gradual than we might want, and it will happen in ways we don’t expect. It won’t be like flipping a switch; it’s more like planting a seed.
Post-Hooligan Sparrow: A Career Is Born?
After finishing Hooligan Sparrow and premiering at Sundance, I assumed that my career was officially launched and that my days of rejection and uncertainty were over. I thought each new film would be easier to make. Of course, I was wrong.
I had by this time started post-production on my second film, I Am Another You, which I had actually begun filming before Hooligan Sparrow but had put on hold. I was looking for money to finish the film, and while my first film’s success did make it easier to approach funders for conversations, my second film was also met with one rejection after another. But this time, the film never got any funding at all. I ended up finishing it on my own time with my own money. Luckily, the film was accepted at SXSW and found distribution after the festival. This allowed for some of the deferred salary to be paid. But my illusions about an easy road after the success of my first film were shattered.
In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising that my second film didn’t attract funding. It was an essayistic film about a young homeless man I’d met in Florida whose outlook and life experience captivated me. But it didn’t captivate funders, who didn’t see the commercial potential for that kind of film. They also probably saw it as a departure from my first film. If I’d been making another story about shocking human rights abuses in China, I may have had better luck finding money for my second project. It was only through commitment to my desire to finish the film that it ended up getting made.
As I’ve progressed in my career since then, I’ve found myself facing the same challenge over and over: How can I make the film that I want, the film that I’m passionate about, while also making a living? I’ve been very fortunate to have found a mostly steady stream of support for my projects since the initial stream of rejections for my first two films. But even now, I still find myself struggling to overcome a lot of doubt whenever I try to get a new project off the ground. To some extent it’s my own self-doubt—but also it’s often the doubts of others. Doubts about the viability of my ideas, doubts about what kinds of stories will succeed in the world. I know now that I will always be fighting doubt and skepticism.
Aside from the challenges of getting each new project off the ground, a big surprise of my filmmaking career has been that each film’s struggle doesn’t end after its premiere. A few months after Hooligan Sparrow premiered at Sundance, I was fortunate that the film was acquired by POV for North American broadcast rights and licensed by Netflix for the North American streaming rights. I thought to myself, Great! The film will get out into the world, and people will see it.
The Tyranny of the Awards Campaign
People around me who wanted to support me and the film and who understood the industry suggested that I should try to qualify the film for some awards, including the Academy Awards. The thinking was, It was one thing for the film to be broadcast and on streaming platforms, but what did that matter if no one knew it was out there to be seen? Awards are the best way for a film to gain visibility. But I had no idea how awards worked, or what qualifying meant, or how to go about it. I learned that to be submitted for consideration for an Academy Award, a film must be screened for a minimum of one week in both New York and LA. My distribution deals didn’t include any theatrical screenings; the film wouldn’t make any money in theaters.
I found myself asking, How much does it cost to rent theaters in NYC and LA? How do I go about running ads, promoting the release on social media, and eventually submitting it for the Academy Award? I also needed to figure out the partners and the team: Who could help do this? Who could handle the theatrical booking and how much do they charge? Where can I find publicists who could help pitch the film to journalists, and how much they charge? Do I need a social media manager? An impact producer?
On top of all of these questions, I had to figure out how to raise money to cover all of the costs. This was all for a film that I had considered already made, already done. But now, it felt like I was producing the film’s sequel. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out how I could continue working on my second film.
Each question felt more daunting than the one before. Each question required a decisive and quick decision, or I’d be missing the window to give the film a potential big boost with awards that would raise its profile and give it a broader audience.
It was the last thing I wanted to do. I suppose the work of promoting a film is its own type of creativity, but to me it felt almost like I was back writing grants for the film again— it filled me with the same apprehension and uncertainty. But the people who encouraged me moved me. When a philanthropist named Lynda Weinman decided to donate money for the film’s post-production, she asked how much money I’d need to finish the film, and wrote me a check that was more than I asked for, and said, “If you don’t use it up, save it for your next film.” When I was debating whether to do the theatrical release of the film myself, there was Jean Tsien, the fairy godmother of documentary filmmaking, who overwhelmed me with her enthusiasm for me and my work, and who donated to a fiscal sponsorship account for me through IDA before I had even decided to accept sponsorship. On top of this, an editor I was working with told me that he was willing to work on my second film with a deferred salary if I needed to prioritize the awards campaign and spend the money on Hooligan Sparrow instead.
It was gestures like this that eventually motivated me to go ahead and engage with the awards process. It is unimaginable to look back now and see how we did it. The academy required the submission of 300 physical DVDs to its voters. Distributors and other sane people typically hire services with sufficient scale to design and produce 300 professional-quality DVDs that make an impression with voters. I bought 300 blank DVDs and printable labels from Amazon, then I snuck into a computer room at NYU and spent a full day there making DVDs on the 20 computers in the room, sliding them into sleeves, and affixing them with plain text stickers with the film’s name and runtime.
When we finally arranged the film’s theatrical release, we had Q&As where the people on stage outnumbered the audience. I was grateful for the support of my team and the few people who attended the screenings, but I found the awards campaign to be draining, mainly because it kept me away from working on my second film.
Miraculously, Hooligan Sparrow ended up being shortlisted for an Academy Award. I was surprised and grateful. Every form of recognition the film received compounded and added to my sense of encouragement—the film was being seen. But I did find myself wondering if that recognition—or any award—was worth whatever benefit it bestowed, especially in light of the extra commitment in time and money it required.
Two of my most recent films have also gone through the process of awards qualification. One Child Nation and In the Same Breath both had incredible support from their distributors, Amazon and HBO; I didn’t have to print 300 DVDs myself anymore. It was a huge privilege to have an entire team’s support in getting the films seen. But again, there was the time. Following the release of One Child Nation, I spent one third of the year traveling, away from my family. Also, that year, I didn’t make a new film. The experience crystallized for me the reality that you have to make a film twice: once actually making it, and then again pushing it out into the world. It feels a bit ingracious saying it out loud, but in the spirit of disclosure and honesty, the second making of each film has made me feel like something in our industry is not working.
There’s no industry in the world where marketing and promotion aren’t important. If nobody knows your film exists, no one will see it. But a peculiarity of our industry is that so much of what makes a project visible is how many awards it wins. Conventional wisdom holds that the best or most worthwhile projects rise to the top and achieve the most accolades. To some extent this is true, but it’s at least as true that winning awards correlates strongly with having a lot of money and resources to spend on promoting a film, so the awards themselves become less an acknowledgement of the best submission than they are a return on an investment in a well-funded awards campaign.
I’ve spoken to many filmmakers who’ve been on this journey and shared similar feelings. Every filmmaker I know remembers acutely how precious and scarce every dollar of funding was at the beginning of their careers—and many of us still have to expend as much energy fighting for the funds to get our films made as we do making our actual films. It’s painful to see so much money and energy spent on elaborate events and campaigns for awards when so many worthwhile projects never get off the ground because of a lack of resources. I think I speak for most filmmakers when I say that if we could really choose, we wouldn’t spend any time campaigning for awards. We’re filmmakers; we want to make films. But the way the industry is configured means that we need to make compromises in order for the films to have the exposure we hoped for.
I often wake up and feel amazed and grateful that I actually get to do what I love for a living. It wouldn’t have happened without the support of the community and the trust of the people who have helped me get my films funded and made. But each time, as soon as one project is over, I’m back to wondering, Am I going to fight to realize my own vision for my own work again? Am I going to be able to be strong enough to say no to any compromise? Can I afford to follow my heart? Can I afford to keep my artistic integrity?
I’ve been tremendously lucky so far in that I’ve worked on stories that I myself found, chose to work on, and felt passionate about. With those projects, I didn’t really need to take time to debate with myself whether or not it would work as a film. The circumstances compelled me to pick up the camera and start recording, and figure out everything else later. Across these projects, the subject matter has varied, but the consistent factor has been my passion for each story. Of course I always dealt with doubt and uncertainty. But because it was my own choice to fall in love with each project in the first place, there was enough passion and commitment to get through it.
In the last two years, something has started happening that was unimaginable to me back in 2014, when I was rejected for the attendance-taking job: People have started to reach out to me to direct projects. Of course I’m grateful for the opportunities, but it’s a new kind of challenge, and I’ve taken the following approach: Do I feel passionate enough to explore the subject matter? Is it socially and historically significant and meaningful enough that I would want the project to exist in our world now and for years to come? Is it going to challenge me creatively and allow me to grow professionally and personally? Who will be the partners that I’ll be working with? Are they going to be supportive? How much creative freedom will I get to have?
I know that there are situations that I don’t want to be in. I don’t want to be emotionally drained because of power struggles and lack of creative control. I don’t want to stylistically repeat my previous work and have little growth or innovation, and I don’t want to commit to topics that I’m half-interested in, that are not worth a year or two of my life.
The Fallacy of “The Golden Age”
People often refer to right now as “The Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking.” They might mean that there are more acquisitions, more docs being made, more funding available for documentaries.
But there is also a new business model: Companies that could invest in the development partner with directors, create a pitch deck or a sizzle reel and get together to pitch to distributors. If a project gets green-lit, the company gets their funding back and makes profit, and the project gets made. Compared to independent projects, it reduces the risks that individual directors take personally and financially to have to get a project off the ground. But what are directors sacrificing in return?
While on the one hand, the risks were reduced from the early stage when the project was starting, on the other hand filmmakers risk giving up creative freedom. Creative control means being able to make the project the way you envisioned or not, and it is affected by every decision along the way— how you want to shoot and edit, who you hire on your team, how your expenses are allocated. .
It’s a struggle that I hear about from many filmmakers— whether to completely follow your heart and be truly independent, or negotiate and compromise in exchange for security and opportunity. It’s a struggle that many people face who make a living with their creativity. It feels paradoxical to hear this moment being described as a “golden age” when so many filmmakers I know feel overwhelmed by this struggle.
Finding Community amid the Evolving Struggle
I might have made documentary filmmaking sound extremely hard, but that mostly does reflect reality. We take physical risks, creative risks and financial risks in order to tell the stories we want people to hear. Sometimes it seems a little crazy that anyone would choose this career. But when I talk to other filmmakers—whether they are making their first documentary or their 10th documentary, with full crews and budgets or with just their own money and skills—I realize that we all have this in common. We are all a little crazy.
We’re all so passionate about storytelling that we’re willing to take these risks. And we’re all crazy enough that we go through the insane process of making a film and then repeat the process over and over. Our industry is fueled by passion and a willingness to take risks.
That said, the strength of the independent film community and its shared sense of purpose helps filmmakers take their stories to places that they couldn’t have taken on their own.
Ultimately I’ve found that in filmmaking, the struggles don’t end; they evolve. Throughout my career I’ve seen the value of sharing our struggles and talking through them out loud with each other. My hope is that the kind of struggles I’ve talked about with you today will be a topic that everyone in our industry feels comfortable discussing openly. Every time I’ve felt lost or discouraged in my work, I’ve always found support from this community. In the end, it’s the community and its shared sense of purpose that helps us find inspiration, clarity, and the strength to persevere.
Nanfu Wang is an award-winning Chinese filmmaker based in the U.S. Wang directed and produced the feature documentaries Hooligan Sparrow (Sundance 2016), I Am Another You (SXSW 2017, Special Jury Prize winner), One Child Nation (Sundance 2019, Grand Jury Prize Winner, Amazon), and In the Same Breath (Sundance 2021, HBO). Wang's films have been shortlisted for three Oscars, received four Emmy nominations, one DGA nomination, two Independent Spirits Awards nominations, and two PGA nominations among other awards. Most recently, Wang directed and executive produced Mind Over Murder, a six-episode documentary series for HBO.
Originally from a remote village in China, Wang overcame poverty and a lack of access to formal education to earn master’s degrees from Shanghai University, Ohio University, and New York University. As a filmmaker, Wang creates intimate character studies that examine the impact of authoritarian governance, corruption, and lack of accountability on the lives of individuals and the well-being of communities. With the rigor of an investigative journalist and immersive, emotionally powerful storytelling, Wang interrogates notions of responsibility, freedom, and truth.