Director Yung Chang discusses his experience at Concordia and his new film This is Not a Movie.
A first generation Chinese-Canadian born in Oshawa, Ontario, Yung Chang graduated from Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in 1999. He is now known for directing known for films like Up the Yangtze, China Heavyweight and his newest documentary, This is Not a Movie.
At Concordia, Chang built strong relationships with professors, one of which became a producer on all of his films until he moved away from Montreal.
“That city is so much a part of my development and growth as an artist and filmmaker,” he said.
Chang said that building relationships like these was one of the benefits he got from the program, adding that “Concordia has a very strong cinema program, and I particularly remember that the emphasis is on cinema as art.”
At a young age, his parents exposed him to a variety of cultural experiences, film and theatre, such as the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, which stages productions for children. This sparked the dream to become a filmmaker.
“My father used to rent super 8mm reels and he had a projector and he would play them for my brother and I in the basement,” Chang said. “There was something about that, my father loading the super 8 into the projector and setting up the screen and the whirring of the machine and just sitting there and watching something projected like that. It was stuck in my brain.”
These experiences set the scene for his interest in the visual arts, storytelling, and ultimately, his career as a filmmaker. It was after studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City that Chang started the groundwork of his first full-length documentary, Up The Yangtze, after his parents invited him to a cruise trip in China.
“Things just sort of snowballed thereafter,” he said, “I sort of discovered that this is a way I could tell stories.”
In his first year at Concordia in 1996, he was expected to shoot on 16mm film; this refers to the width of a piece of film stock, and it was one of the smaller sizes used in film.
“Back in the day, it was very much a hands-on thing,” he said. This helped Chang realize that film was a physical process that required careful consideration.
“You cut it, tape it, put it together, I think that process slows you down and makes you think a little more about how you want to put something together,” said Chang.
Graduating at 21, Chang had bold expectations about life and in hindsight remarks that it’s rare to make a masterpiece right out of film school.
“Those expectations have to be tapered down a little, but not so much that you lose the spark that you had,” he said. “ I had to go on a journey outside of film school to find my voice.”
Chang’s newest documentary, This Is Not A Movie, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and made its Quebec premiere on Nov. 17 and 18. The film focuses on foreign correspondent Robert Fisk whose life’s work is dedicated to documenting the Middle East. There are many reasons why Chang was inspired to make a film about Fisk, including the “very urgent question about ‘what is the role of media’ and ‘what is the role of the written word’ in this new world in which we consume.”
He continued by explaining how the sheer amount of information today is shocking, and it can be difficult to discern what is real and what is fake.
“So, who do we lean to? Who are the people that we can trust?,” he asked.
To Chang, Fisk is a part of the last generation of “boots on the ground, pad and paper” reporters.
“If anything, somebody who’s been around for forty years, doggedly reporting ‘the truth’ must have some insight into what journalism is,” he said.
Fisk is able to delineate complex places, events or wars for people in a way that mainstream media does not. Chang and his team did not want to make a political film.
Instead, they wanted to hear what Fisk had to say, allowing space for the audience to criticize him as he’s such a controversial figure.
“We want you to not agree with him, we want you to question it, but sit through the movie and feel through the ideas he presents,” Chang said.
This is Not a Movie is about the subjectivity of truth, our complicity of war and questioning our beliefs in journalism. It’s an urgent film, made for today.
Chang ended by emphasizing that we need media literacy education to help people weed through the bombardment of information we face every day. This is precisely why we need people like Fisk. Chang hopes that this film will inspire new journalists, filmmakers and anyone who watches to have a deep understanding of how we interact with “the idea of truth”.
For now, This is Not a Movie will continue its festival tour and is set to be screened at DOC NYC and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. It’s set to be theatrically released in Canada, in March 2020.
With files from the National Film Board of Canada.