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Letters from Lockdown #5: Debbie Zhou

From Chloé Zhao to Kirsten Johnson, Steve McQueen to Stanley Kwans, Debbie lauds the skills of filmmakers whose films still hit you exactly how they should even on a laptop screen...

Hi lovely friends,

It’s such an emotional ride, a moment of flashback, reading through this email chain, peppered with all your amazing thoughts, and it’s reminded me how much I’ve missed our conversations in-person — even when we had just met at Berlinale! From intro drinks at an ‘Aussie outback’ bar, to sitting across from all of you at a huge boardroom table, with a whiteboard to jot down our thoughts on criticism. Truly, it felt like a privilege to pick at your minds like that, so care-free yet also so rigorous and focused. Like you all, it’s hard to imagine those days without feeling a crushing wave of nostalgia, where we danced in crammed parties (Rodrigo insisting we stay on for just one more drink), took giggly, sneaky pics of Wim Wenders in the background of our selfies, or went into a crowded cinema like it was the most natural thing in the world. I mean, how in the hell was that only this year?

I feel like it’s almost impossible to say that 2020 hasn’t made us different people, in at least a small way (so, Rodrigo and Maja, I 110% get you). I’ve never had this amount of time at my fingertips, and while it’s come with its ups and downs — it’s granted me some very illuminating moments of life re-evaluation (to go into more detail would surely take another email chain), and also a real chance to think about the way I consume media. Screen-time hasn’t necessarily reduced, but Adi, I definitely echo the guilt of feeling like a 'bad cinephile’, which has only been exemplified this year with so many digital releases, and fewer excuses to not catch up on them. I have to say I’m so continually overwhelmed at not just how much ‘content’ is being released, but also the short attention cycles afforded by people on social media — which I guess, is part of the trappings of those platforms. I’ve felt so little desire to keep up with everything, and perhaps happily resigned to the fact that I will never be in the loop with every trending topic happening at once. I think it’s because I can’t already keep up with how fast-moving and uncertain the industry has been for the past year too. One minute, it’s the dominance of streaming services, and their accelerated success; the next, the death of the theatrical model (especially for mid-budget films); then, it’s the constant cancellation of festivals and what that signifies for indie cinema. I just have a lot of questions, and not a lot of answers. And it’s left me in a weird, flurried, existential state with my watching habits.

That’s why reading about all your favourite films this year has been utterly reinvigorating and a little bit grounding, because it’s such a good reminder that out of all of this mess: it’s movies that we love and this is why we do what we do. No matter how they’ve been screened or shown, how much they’ll earn at the box office, how many awards they win during awards season — their personal, long-lasting impact on us goes beyond 2020. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was very much one of these films for me, it broke me into a million pieces even when my first watch was on my laptop screen during the BFI (virtual) London Film Festival. Something about Zhao’s naturalistic direction and her docufiction style gave me such peace — and even when Zhao portrayed all of Fern’s tough solitary struggles, there was also such a tenderness and empathy there in her depiction of Fern's everyday life and the people around her; the gaping hole of what she was forced to leave behind, and the empty road ahead.

Savina, as always, I love your love of Undine: it is infectious, and I share so much love for the intangibility of the film — which remains so slippery and romantic even on rewatch (but doesn’t quite beat the big-screen experience of seeing the close-ups of Undine and Christoph’s faces in all its detail). I miss fangirling about it with you, while Dana looked at us like we were a crazy pair of Petzold fanatics (of which we are). I also share your love of Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead, which made me ball my eyes out in the dark for 20 mins straight after watching it. I’ve always been a bit of a brooder, and I knew Johnston had it in her to punch me in the guts emotionally, especially as Cameraperson acted as a prelude to the breakdown of film construction and authorship, and how it both can capture and manipulate memories. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was the glimpse of optimism and fun that were so clearly present too. It felt like a personal gift of sorts, reminding me that there is some things still to be made light of even in grim circumstances.

I also was incredibly moved by Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films, particularly Mangrove, which captured the joys of community before propelling it into a wrenchingly powerful examination into the corrupt police system and of racial discrimination inside British institutions. While that was emotionally riveting, the Irish animation Wolfwalkers caught my eye with its full aesthetic explosion of hand drawn beauty. It might not be radically challenging in a thematic sense, but its enthralling world-building and touching environmental messaging would make it a perfect companion film to Hayao Miyazaki’s exquisite Princess Mononoke

Maja, I’ve loved reading your insights on Chinese and Hong Kong cinema and always admire your breadth and depth of knowledge — and also must thank you for all you have shared with me this year too! I’ve learned so much from you. I must say it’s been such a highlight to skim only the surface of it: my first Ann Huis (A Simple Life), Stanley Kwans (Rouge), then Yellow Earth, Spring in a Small Town and Street Angel. I have so much more to explore, but it’s still been an exciting journey to dip my toes into a different national cinema, even if for a brief time.

So essentially, my viewing patterns are so all-over-the-place, with lots of holes, which basically reflects this entire year. Maybe 2021 will be different? (though my attention span says it won’t).

Much love, and thank you always for your warm words which provide me with much sustenance and good memories.

Can’t wait to be reunited with you all soon — wherever we are.
xx Debbie