Leslie Tai: Grave Goods Documentary Film Interview

Leslie Tai is a second-generation Chinese-American filmmaker. In her short documentary film, Grave Goods, the director pays homage to her grandmother with a sensitive reflection on mourning and remembrance. She asks “what becomes of the personal effects we leave behind after our death?” Through a rigorous ‘mise en scène’, the filmmaker presents objects and images belonging to the departed while giving free rein to her own recollections. Grave Goods is an intimate cinematographic museum of the fleeting nature of existence. FRONTRUNNER hosts a preview of the film (password: goods) and an interview with the director following a successful screening at the TriBeCa Film Festival ’13 and Visions du Réel ’13 in Nyon, Switzerland.


This is an excellent question and the problem of “curating” my grandma’s things was an issue that came early on when I had to decide what to lug into the studio for the shoot. At one point, my grandma’s “collection” was spread across eight rooms in three countries, so the first category I had to “cut” was her massive collection of women’s fashion and accessories. Clothing is inherently hard to film because it doesn’t hold shape on its own, so it was clear to me that I needed to focus on voluminous objects, especially if I wanted it to achieve the “home shopping network” aesthetic I was going for.

The object selection process becomes really interesting if you think of it as the preliminary stages of the editing process itself. You start thinking about the meaning of the object. If you look closely at the film, there is a sort of transformation in the “meaning of objects” that occurs as the film progresses. They begin as unused, specific, everyday objects that took up space in her environment immediately preceding her death—purely utilitarian objects such as adult diapers and perineal wash—and then they move towards embodying the fanciful and the sublime. At what I consider to be the emotional climax of the film, the unassuming women’s bags spin to the background of a Chinese popular love song from the 1960s until they become transparent and reveal what is inside—secrets, nostalgia, and delights.

But to speak about the actual selection process, the first objects I naturally started pulling from the pile were those that embodied my own personal memories. Before long, however, I realized that personal memories are terribly specific—they are based on verbal language, which means it would take a lot of “on air” time to verbally recount the story of the object in order for it to acquire that level of meaning. The question of which of my grandmother’s personal affects were cinematic then, for me, boiled down to the question of personal vs. universal and specific vs. symbolic. And then there is the question of emotional impact. What is the emotional impact of a solitary picture frame containing an image of me as a kid vs. the image of fifteen empty picture frames that I found buried in a chest of drawers?

Once I unlocked the idea that it wasn’t about the specific, actual objects, but about their accumulation and the way they had been “preserved,” it opened up avenues into different visual metaphors, the strongest of which was the metaphor of the “container.” The physical metaphor of the container—the grave, the Shed, the boxes, the bags—helped me get at something else that for me is still living in those containers.

How do you feel your reaction to her death by making a film is different than your grandmother’s reaction to her own death?

This is a really tough question for me, because I don’t presume to fully understand how my grandmother felt about her own death. There is a perfect Chinese phrase (she bu de) which describes an aching longing for or a deep reluctance to part with something. These were the words she used to describe how she felt about leaving us. Up until the time of her departure, though, it was a huge point of contention within the family the extent to which my grandmother really knew what was going on. There is a lot in traditional Chinese culture that people just don’t express outwardly—acceptance of death may be one of them. It was a really painful moment when my grandmother finally told me she didn’t want to die. We had been joined at the hip since I was born, and neither of us could really bear to part from the other. That is the essence of she bu de.

Personal films get a lot of flack for riding the tendency of being “self-therapy,” but I have to admit that filming my grandmother was absolutely my way of preparing for her death. I started filming her in 2005, first, as part of a filmmaking exercise. I filmed her on and off, whenever I returned home (I was living in China at the time). And it wasn’t until 2010, on her fifth 80th birthday (80 is auspicious for the Chinese, and so she just kept celebrating it year after year) when she had this remarkable dream wherein my deceased grandfather told her he would be coming to get her in two years. That was the impetus for a renewed commitment on my part to film my grandmother’s days.

All in all, the project resulted in over 200 hours of filmed video footage, with the majority shot between 2009 – 2011 over the course of several trips back to the US, but also including trips I made to her birthplace in Hunan, China and meeting what remained of her side of the family. I also filmed her entire process of dying. A tiny bit of this footage ended up in the film. A lot of the earlier footage resulted in a feature length film called Lonely Lotus which I made in 2010, which is ostensibly about her passion and about losing control over her clothing collection that I mention above, but really about 3 generations of Chinese-American women, and that complicated thing which is mother-daughter relationships. In 2011, I made a short film called Burial Shroud which is a black comedy documentary about the misadventures of my grandmother and her three elegant, overseas-born Chinese daughters on a mission to find her the perfect silk burial shroud, but end up getting taken advantage of by locals in Mainland China. In this sense, the “Grandma film series” might smell of “self-therapy” and “digging for one’s roots,” but I think my grandmother’s character, the questions I was asking, and the form of the films I chose to experiment with went beyond that.

Filmmaker Leslie Tai

What was the production process like of creating a personal essay film? Was this your first film told from the first person?

This was my first film told in first-person voiceover, and it was a very conscience decision on my part to go “where I was afraid to go.” In documentary filmmaking, we always talk about the filmmaker’s voice, and I thought what better way to really challenge or hone the concept of authorial voice, than to put it into practice in the most literal sense?

My Chinese mentor Wu Wenguang really instilled the idea in me that to make good art, you must expose yourself. There only remain little hints of this—in the scene where I am bugging my grandmother about whether or not she is afraid of dying. If the film were longer, I definitely would have included more of the unsavory parts of dealing with the process of watching a loved one die. We really are imperfect and I am always trying to show that.

In terms of the filmmaking process, voiceover was the challenge I undertook to try and expose myself. I was terrified. The way I decided to approach it was to kind of just let go, hit record, and freestyle to the image while it was playing. No writing, no judgment, I just blurted out whatever came to mind, and sometimes it was really stupid. Eventually, I spit out some gems, and these became “anchor points” around which I fashioned the rest of the wording. Only then did I pick up a pen and pad and that was mostly to work out different wordings of things. And the rest of it just kind of had to come together like that—absolutely through trial and error. Never did I once have a complete script, or record the entire thing in one take. The key is to let go of all self-censorship and try not to describe how you are feeling.

How has the film been received at festivals, family/local screenings?

The film’s reception really blew me away. I think it is the first film I have made that has received such a unanimous positive audience reaction and I think this is because of its accessibility. One audience member said after my first public screening, “Everyone has a grandmother, you know.” Maybe that is why. The film had its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival and its International Premiere at lesser known, but really good documentary film festival in Europe called Visions du Réel, which takes place in Nyon, Switzerland. Tribeca is definitely more mainstream, while Visions, on the other hand, has a reputation for top notch programming of “creative documentaries.” Between those two, I have gotten the film a bit of exposure and a lot of requests from other festivals, both in the US and Europe. My mother’s side of the family is my only family. We are a family of women, and my grandmother was the matriarch. I think the film is really meaningful for all of us because it really captures the complex feelings we have about my grandmother’s things and the very difficult question of what to keep, and what to throw away.

Do you have future plans and/or documentary films in production?

I am currently wrapping up my thesis film called The Private Life of Fenfen, which is an experimental documentary narrative that takes the video diaries of a Chinese migrant girl I have been working with for many years and has her story play out through a documentary installation. That is, I take Fenfen’s act of self-filming to its logical conclusion, and play an edited version of her footage on TVs in various locations in the migrant world—cheap, hole-in-the-wall cigarette shops, fast food restaurants, and hair salons in the Beijing hutongs. Then, in the world of the film, Fenfen is a sort of fictitious reality TV super-star, and her private diaries are broadcast on TVs across China. I’m calling it part-social experiment, part-public art installation, but what I’m really trying to get at are conceptions of privacy, celebrity, and the commodification of an authentic person for “documentary film entertainment.” It’s a commentary on gawking and the lack of privacy of Chinese society and “Schadenfreude,” which describes the kind of morbid fascination we have with witnessing the misfortunes of others. Or maybe it is just about the eerie feeling or desire we have all had at one point or another that one’s life is actually a movie.

Besides this, I have an idea for a feature, again probably a documentary-fiction hybrid, that I’m working on. I won’t say much about it, except it’s set in Silicon Valley and has to do with Chinese women.

Who should Frontrunner interview next?

Maybe you could check out the work of pop-up artist Colette Fu. I am obsessed with her work and dying for a chance to collaborate. http://www.colettefu.com/

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