Saturday 18 May, 2024

A Unique Perspective on Documentary Filmmaking: SIHAN CUI


From Beijing to Flushing, Sihan Cui is spearheading a unique way to capture her subjects in complex genre of documentary filmmaking 

Documentary filmmaking is a complicated genre of filmmaking. It is truly an exercise in control and restraint for the creative mind. It’s about maintaining control, while allowing your subjects to freely tell their story. As a documentary filmmaker, you have to maintain a sense of the fourth wall, so as not to be invasive and participate in your own film. 

From Hoop Dreams to Grizzly Man, documentary films fascinate us as the audience. We’re aware of the story, the arc but the nuanced directing and sensitivity towards storytelling, is what makes or breaks a documentary film. 

Many try to break into the film industry, but few have been able to take it by storm like Sihan. With Chinese artistic sensibilities, mixed with her New York critical eye, it is no wonder her documentary films have received such critical acclaim. 

Her documentary film Flushing is a thoughtful and poignant exploration of the condition of Chinese immigrants in the Chinese and Korean neighborhood Flushing in Queens, NYC. What makes the film beautiful both in the storytelling and the imagery that Sihan allows us, as the viewer, to participate and engage in, is the poetic nuances. From the editing to the score, Sihan’s film is poetry in motion. Many of the major festivals immediately perceived this delicate and less intrusive way of storytelling, and as a result Flushing has won an incredible amount of accolades. From Best Short Documentary, New Wave Short Film Festival, Munich, Germany  to Best Short Documentary, Rome International Movie Awards, Rome, Italy “Flushing” to Official Selection, Toronto Documentary Feature & Short Film Festival, Toronto, Canada “Flushing”; Sihan has proven that her visual poetry enjoys no borders. 

Her short documentary Lulu is shot in a similar fashion. The omnipresent narrator of the clicking of the typewriter, the only non-verbal sound, is present throughout the film as a reminder to the viewer to pay attention. One can’t help but fall in love with the toddler protagonist Lulu and admire the hardworking ethos of the masseuse mom. The relationship of mother daughter is so complex, but Sihan speaks to the audience in her universal poetic language and shows us that this mom is just like all of our moms: sacrificial, hard-working, and dedicated to her child. The beauty that Sihan shows in what is at first glance, an ugly situation, is precisely why Lulu was a  Semi-Finalist, Barcelona International Film Festival, Barcelona. 

Coincidentally, the successful trajectory of the film, mirrors the professional career of Sihan who has worked on major documentary style projects in Beijing, Shanghai, and New York. In Shanghai, she documented the French Minister of Economy and Finance as he delivered a passionate speech. In Shanghai, she conducted an exclusive interview with Yue Bai Chinese Wedding Gown Haute Couture to understand his ethos and share why he designs his gowns in the way that he does. At the heart of Sihan’s mission is to poetically tell stories through visual imagery that is both captivating, nuanced, and sensitive. 

Her style is so unique in a current artistic world which is loud, filled with artists shouting “Pick me, Pick me!”. Her nuanced and shaded styles come out even more so in her photography series After 365 Days, which explores angst, heartbreak, loneliness, and helplessness. The series is filled with her subjects concealing their eyes (pain) or avoiding looking into the camera. Sihan beautifully captured the despair of her subjects. Which ultimately speaks to our general human condition of emptiness. This subtle exploration of the human condition did not go unnoticed and this poignant series has been exhibited internationally at Cumulus Photography. 
In a world of shouting and screaming, Sihan’s work is quiet enough for us to notice her but most importantly to look into ourselves.

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