Yingying Zhang came to the United States in April 2017 to spend a year researching photosynthesis and plant productivity at the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign. She was considering a doctoral program at the university and planned to marry her boyfriend Xiaolin Hu later that year. In her diary she wrote: “Life is too short to be ordinary” and tried to fulfill as many ambitions as possible – but disappeared in June of this year. It was later confirmed that her life had been taken.
Jiayan "Jenny" Shi, director of Finding Yingying, accompanies Yingying's parents, Ronggao Zhang and Lifeng Ye, her brother Zhengyang, and her boyfriend through the first search efforts that follow to be prosecuted. Unlike most documentaries that deal with a "true crime," Shi stayed close to the victim's family and friends and only expanded their scope when she felt it was important to Yingying's story. Shi sees a lot of herself in Yingying: She talks about her diary entries about the feeling of alienation in the USA, they graduated from Peking University in the same year and the two even look alike – as Yingying's mother Shi tells in front of the camera. Of course, Shi becomes an integral presence in the film, finds himself an effective and appropriate intermediate for Yingying's story and realizes that it is too deep to remain a detached fly on the wall. Shi even does the voice-over narration of Yingying's diary entries, so the usual dividing lines between filmmaker, camera and subject are thin or almost none. These barriers can serve to protect the filmmaker, but Shi was deep in depth and had little protection. She spoke to us about her sensitive and intimate approach to humanizing Yingying, her family and friends in the fallout of a heinous crime.
Filmmaker: True crime documentaries tend to keep their distance from the objects of investigation so that they can more easily contradict them later when they solve the puzzle. That approach has always made it uncomfortable for me to watch these films. But with your intimate approach to Yingying's family in the search for Yingying, and as you delve into the events of Yingying's disappearance, I felt more confident knowing that you would not construct this to please your subjects, mainly Yingying's parents and friend, upside down or contradicting them. Do you think that filmmakers who document a "true crime" have a moral obligation to approach the victims and investigation if they approach such heinous material?
Shi: I think it really depends. When I first approached the family in Finding Yingying, it was more about volunteering, not being a filmmaker who wanted to make a feature film with them. The first time I heard Yingying was missing I was a student at Northwestern University and heard news of her disappearance through my colleague's alumni group chat on WeChat. At the time, like any other Chinese student, I spread the word about her disappearance to see if anyone could find her. Then I found out about Yingying and went to the same university in China. Our similarities really stuck to me, and I followed the incident very closely. When Yingying's family arrived in the United States, I went to Champaign to see what I could do. I was a journalism student at the time, so it was very natural that I was curious about what was going on and what was going to happen next.
I visited them through the volunteer groups – there were many volunteers who helped them. I sometimes helped them with translations. Then I met another volunteer, a senior student at the University of I. (Shilin Sun, co-producer and DP of the film). He was interested in filmmaking. We started thinking about whether or not to document what was going on as there were already a lot of reporters. But this was a story very close to us, our own identity, and so we decided that we should follow.
Three weeks later, the FBI arrested a suspect and did not believe that Yingying was still alive. At that moment the whole story went in a different direction than expected. We thought we'd find her for sure or she'd just come back. But the whole situation was out of control and we really saw how desperate and helpless Yingying's family was. We had to think about what to do with all that footage. I gave Yingying's family and boyfriend the idea of possibly documenting their trip to the United States and the places where Yingying studied. That's how I started. As an investigative journalist, I didn't really look into it. It was more about volunteering and watching the story unfold and waiting to see what would happen. This is how we built trust in Yingying's parents and boyfriend. For the first five months the parents were in the US in 2017, 70 percent of the time we spent with them was without a camera. Yingying's mother was really happy to see me, just to have me there, this girl who looked like her daughter. I wouldn't say I brought her comfort, but somehow she felt happy that someone was there. I was happy to do that.
Whenever we wanted to film, we asked her first. "We're going to shoot a quiet moment for ten minutes, is that okay?" So we started filming and dealt with the ethical situation. When they were very emotional, I wondered if I should keep filming or not. So I kept asking them these questions all along.
Filmmaker: You get so close to the Zhang family that viewers can feel how much they are leaning on you in the film. Then the investigation takes such a macabre turn. How do you protect yourself when you are immersed in something this heavy and have emotional obligations about the subject?
Shi: There are two ways I think about it. For one, the family felt when we filmed them. It depends from day to day: you can shoot okay today, but not tomorrow, even if both days have the same situation. I needed to feel how exactly the family felt that day. Sometimes I think Yingying's family was too kind. They didn't want to say no to the people who came to support them. So there was a misunderstanding between us. After we finished days like that, they said, "Today was not a good day to film." We would apologize to them and make sure this doesn't happen again.
We filmed her for over two years, but we never stopped asking her (is it okay to film). In 2017, 2018 and 2019 the situation changed constantly. At first they didn't know where Yingying was, then they found out that she was probably dead, then they found out that a heinous crime had happened to her. Their feelings were all so different that we were very careful about what access we had and how we maintained our relationship with them. I wouldn't apply too much pressure. All I learned in school was "flying on the wall" so I thought people would forget about the camera. But that was not the case. (laughs) It's always there. So we really thought about how the family felt.
The other way to think about this question is how I feel as a filmmaker. It's my first feature film. Never have I covered a search story or a grieving family desperately looking for their daughter. It was a real challenge for me because I spent so much time with them. Sometimes I couldn't stand these feelings, not only from family but also from my own. I often questioned my ethics as to whether I was right or wrong on any given day. On the other hand, I think about what Yingying wants and also about my own identity, my own parents. My parents were very concerned for my safety when they heard the news that Yingying was gone. My parents were in China; You know how big the case was there. There were a lot of emotions to deal with when trying to stay effective as a filmmaker. That was really a challenge for me.
I wasn’t alone in dealing with my own emotions while filming with the family. During the trial, our producers, Brent E. Huffman and Diane Quon, texted Shilin and me, who sat in the courtroom every day, to see if we were okay. I also received support from the entire Kartemquin team, including Gordon Quinn and Tim Horsburgh, who kept providing advice on how to deal with ethical dilemmas. "Finding Yingying" is done through a collective effort, and the experience I gained on this trip was significant.
Filmmaker: Did you work on the editing? If so, how do you manage the emotional toll of working through footage like this?
Shi: We ended up hiring an editor, John Farbrother. I worked until we found enough money to get an editor. It was very difficult for me to go through the footage even though I was the one who recorded it. In particular, there's the scene where Yingying's mother starts crying and collapses at a press conference when she arrives in the United States. I used that scene for a three minute demo, but it was very difficult for me to edit at all. I think it took me two weeks to basically control myself and make sure my own emotions weren't affecting my own creative decisions.
Filmmaker: Did you have to cut out things that were too intimate and compromised family privacy?
Shi: It's always good to talk about the power dynamic between the subject and the filmmaker. In this film, I wanted to create that intimacy. That's something that sets this movie apart from most true crime stories: we wanted to put the audience in the shoes of the family and really see the hardships they went through over the past three years. That is missing in the mainstream media. Whenever heinous crimes or tragedies like this happen, it's important to see who forgot behind the scenes. It's important for me to make a note of this, but on the other hand, it's important for me to respect how much Yingying's parents want me to show off in public – especially if they don't speak English, just Chinese. Yingying's mother can't even read Chinese. I had power over them. When I was with Yingying's parents, I was very careful about the types of questions I asked and how much I asked.
Early on, I didn't specifically ask about their feelings, just kept the camera running and letting them express what they wanted to express in front of the camera. There were many intimate conversations going on in China when I came back in 2018. Yingying's father only wanted to talk to me outside of the camera. None of these are in the film and I didn't include them, but these were heart-to-heart conversations about what he wanted to do after Yingying's fall. He didn't know what he wanted to do or what the future of the family would be. They were still fighting. Even today, a year after the trial, they are still fighting. Hence it was important to prioritize their feelings and privacy and show them respect throughout the process.
Filmmaker: Did your parents influence how you told the story?
Shi: I never knew what was going to happen next, so I wasn't sure about the structure of the film. But they knew from the start that it was a human story. In the middle of production, we decided to celebrate Yingying's life. We discovered her diary and many photos and home videos from her childhood. At that moment, media attention waned, so we had an opportunity to highlight Yingying and bring it to life. The parents knew this was the heart of the story, so they were very supportive.
You didn't ask a lot. Actually, they didn't ask anything before we showed them the cut. We were supposed to premiere the film on SXSW, but it was canceled. We already booked the flights and got their visas and tried to fly them here to attend the premiere. We wanted to show them before the movie was done because we wanted to make sure everything in the movie was okay with them. But then everything happened with COVID-19, so I had my friend in China visit Yingying's parents and show the movie on her laptop. Shilin Sun and I came in to stay with the family and virtually watch the movie. The film was very difficult for Yingying's parents to watch. Yingying's mother started sobbing as soon as the movie started. Yingying's father said nothing while watching it, but they both talked about people they knew in the movie. I was very nervous about showing it because there are some family conflicts in the film. In Chinese culture, we don't really want to show family matters to the public, but Yingying's parents agreed to it because they thought that was exactly what happened, it was the truth.
They just asked about the civil lawsuit against the university. They wanted us to have more about it. But from my perspective, we wanted to make sure the film was about Yingying himself, and I didn't want to end with the lawsuit. So I added a text card at the end after Yingying talked about her dreams and her boyfriend (Xiaolin Hou) talked about how she is an ordinary and extraordinary girl. Yingying's parents, as participants in the film, basically trusted us in the way we told the story. We'll be showing the film in China next week. They wanted to do that. We wanted to bring Yingying's story to more people so that they could memorize it and their family's journey. It is shown in the city where Yingying and her boyfriend went to college and met, which will be very meaningful to them.
Filmmaker: I know you saw similarities between your life and Yingying's before we even started filming it, but when did you realize that you would become an integral part of the story structure?
Shi: I never thought that I would be part of the film at the beginning. I think the first time I thought about it was at a work-in-progress screening for Kartemquin Films in Chicago. It was just a twenty minute rehearsal, a student film. I put together footage that I shot over ten weeks. Most of the footage was from the family, and the audience asked me if I was exploiting the family. In this example, you couldn't really tell what the movie would be about or who was making the movie. So I started thinking about whether I should clarify who is behind the camera.
It would be very different if I weren't someone who has an identity similar to Yingying and who makes the film. If it was an outsider or an American journalist doing the film, it would feel very different. Later, when I became more involved with things, the parents started talking to me right in front of the camera. There were many emotions and facts that could not be told without my experience. The more time I spent with Yingying's parents, colleagues, and friends, the more I learned who Yingying was. Basically, she was just amazing. As I read her diary, I was totally overwhelmed because a lot of her handwriting, her feelings were exactly the same as I had when I came here. I've only played along with her so much.
In the film, I also tried to include an international student's perspective, and as someone in that community, it works for me to tell that perspective. We didn't think about including me in the film until post-production so we didn't have a lot of footage of me filming, we just gathered everything we had.
Filmmaker: You do the voice-over of Yingying's diary yourself for obvious reasons, but why in English?
Shi: Yingying wrote in both English and Chinese, but we decided to translate everything into English for several reasons. I really wanted to show Yingying's story in America to the English-speaking audience. This is already a high profile case in China, everyone knows what happened and how difficult it was for her parents to look for her in the US. But not many people in the US know about their trip. Only visually, because we animated her handwriting, would we still have to add subtitles when I tell stories in Mandarin. It would have been difficult for people to read both at the same time, and we knew we had to show Yingying's handwriting.
Filmmaker: You show the killer in this film. How do you get him in without detracting from Yingying's story, especially given his feeling that the volunteers and media attention covering the case are for him and not them?
Shi: It was one of the challenges during the whole process. We actually interviewed the prosecutors, the FBI, etc. We could have done a real crime thriller, but we decided against it. We don't want to glorify someone like him. Just as we cover crime stories these days, we always forget about the victims. These people are left behind and ultimately dehumanized under the label of the victim. We wanted to make sure the audience understood the basic facts of the crime. Only when the audience understands how heinous the crime is will they understand how great the loss of Yingying's life is. So we had to include basic facts, but not go too far in that direction. We had some of the classified footage of the defendant talking at length about how he killed her, but we didn't record his own words. I have briefly described the process in my own words. Through my voice, I can somehow tone down the heinous crime, but still let you know exactly what happened.
There is a section in the movie where he talks about how hard Yingying hit back. Our intention was that even when he talked about the crime, it should be about how hard Yingying was fighting for her life. That's still part of their personality and we still show them in their final moments of their lives. There was a time when we thought about talking to his friends and family, but we ended up not doing that because this is a movie about yingying.