For those who have seen U.S.-based Chinese filmmaker Nanfu Wang’s debut documentary film, Hooligan Sparrow (2016), her subsequent documentary I Am Another You covers similar thematic terrain: the notions of freedom and choice; movement as a physical and psychological journey; and how freedom, choice, and movement are (ill)defined and (mis)perceived in relation to standards of mainstream society. Wang takes on these themes in both films through her friendship and collaboration with a person whose life is shaped by movement. In Hooligan Sparrow, that person is human rights activist Ye Haiyan, who is tracked and harassed by local and national authorities from one town to another in her pursuit of justice regarding a child rape case. In I Am Another You, it is Dylan Olsen, a young man who has seemingly opted to live his life on the streets and makes his home wherever the wind takes him.
Though the geographical terrain in Hooligan Sparrow is China and in I Am Another You it is the U.S., these two films are in many ways mirror images of each other. Shaped by Wang’s sensitive yet frank grasp of the ethical pitfalls of documentary filmmaking, her two films are about not only her social actors but also her creative/critical role as filmmaker in relation to them and the constructed nature of documentary. In I Am Another You, this self-reflexivity is made more explicit. Without judgment but instead full of empathy coupled with an openness and desire to learn and know about the person whom she is accompanying as part of this self-reflexivity, Wang crafts a deeply thoughtful work on perception, meaning both the ability to see/hear/understand through the senses and the way one considers/regards something or someone, and how filmmaking is a process by which perceptions can be enhanced and changed.
Wang presents the shift in landscape and the link between her two films immediately, with the film’s opening sequence of fields upon fields of high-rises and construction sites viewed from a moving train, the pace accelerating in accordance with increasingly shorter shot lengths. An abrupt cut to waves quietly lapping the sand and touching a pair of sandaled feet planted in the sand, and a shadow, switches the tone, and then a voiceover: ‘I left China in 2011.’ Travels, Wang narrates, have always been a part of her life; more so since 20 years of age, which is when she began annual treks across different parts of China and then the U.S. on her birthday. For one such birthday trip, she went to Florida and decided to capture with her camera every encounter/conversation she has. Upon meeting Dylan, a further opportunity for travel presents itself: accompanying him on the streets for about three weeks, to ‘show you what freedom is like.’
What follows is indeed a study of Dylan’s nomadic life in dialogue with Wang’s feelings/impressions of it made verbal and visual. At one point early in their street life together, while hanging out with one of the many people whom they befriend and who provide varying degrees of kindnesses (temporary lodging, meals, cash, and/or conversation), Wang shares in voiceover that Dylan’s freedom is something she had never encountered – least of all in China. But while the film remains centered on Dylan throughout its running time, Wang structures the unfolding complexities that motivate Dylan’s life choices – including his family in Utah – in such a way as to make the film transcend the usual documentary portrait composed of talking head interviews. And this structure is integral to the film’s unique approach to perception and the aforementioned themes, especially choice.
The film is structured into three chapters, different in tone and sometimes even in mode, according to the purpose/subject at hand. Chapter 1, ‘There is no time,’ consists of Wang’s time with Dylan on the streets and concludes with an argument between them that pushes Wang to return to New York and become preoccupied with the making of her first documentary. This first chapter is also the time when the spectator gets to know Dylan alongside Wang, hence the largely observational mode of filmmaking, stitched together by informal conversations; by extension, one also gets to know Wang’s subjectivity and her mental projections about what Dylan represents vis-à-vis abstract notions like freedom. Occasionally, the film includes voiceovers by Dylan reciting some of his writings, which reveal a poetic mind and sensibility. As if on cue, following his first voiceover, Wang narrates that she teaches Dylan to use the camera to also document her during their journey (although, in truth, such footage is brief).
Chapter 2, ‘The Freedom to Choose,’ presents a different perspective/filter through which to understand Dylan. When Wang finds herself in Utah due to Hooligan Sparrow, she reaches out to Dylan’s family to learn more about him. The information about Dylan shared in this chapter comes largely from his father John, who may be confused about his eldest son’s life choices, but never gives way to anger or judgment. This second chapter also includes not only reconnecting with Dylan but also capturing him in this different environment with his family. On the one hand, this chapter is formally different because Wang makes frequent use of sit-down interviews, which creates an expository tone and ‘outsider’ stance in relation to Dylan. On the other hand, it follows an arc similar to that of the first chapter: initial amity/rapport and then a concluding break, this time between Dylan and his family.
Chapter 3, ‘I Am Another You,’ sees Wang reconnecting again with Dylan, this time in the Florida Keys and surrounded by like-minded people who also lead street lives. A poetic sequence begins the chapter to reflect Dylan’s psyche, which segues to the chapter’s primary issue of mental health issues and Dylan’s particular condition. Equipped with this new element, Wang replays some of the first chapter’s footage in her mind, thereby prompting the spectator to do the same. It turns out that a number of Dylan’s street friends suffer from a similar or some type of mental health condition, which has largely prompted their ‘choice’ to live life on the streets. One of the film’s most memorable and effective sequences is in fact the staging/visualisation of Dylan’s experience of reality with the voices, by Dylan and his friends. He relates, ‘By their [i.e. society’s] standards, I’m mentally disabled.’
With each chapter inflected by a particular mode of filmmaking – roughly, observational, expository, and poetic – that expresses a different level/source of engagement with Dylan’s life, Wang illustrates not only that time-honoured saying of ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ but also the subjective, constructed nature of documentary’s realism.
In retrospect, each of the chapters meditates on the meaning of choice. With each subsequent chapter, choice becomes less of a one-off decision and more of an ongoing process that is continually moulded by internal and external factors – including society’s perception/understanding of one’s choice and the possibility of changing it. Much like the way Wang approaches documentary filmmaking.