This documentary is heartbreaking and not easy to watch. The director/producer Zoey Lee and co-director Matt Belbin observed a Chinese orphanage for children of prisoners, the “Sun Village“. The founder is the former prison supervisor Shuqion Zhang and she built this beautiful home alone with her own hands and raised hundreds of children without any financial support of the government. Director Zoey Lee answered my questions how she found the village and lost her heart to the people in it. It’s hard to get an indie work like this on the big screen and she talks about the long way of festivals and networking.
How did you find this village?
ZL: I actually volunteered there at the village as a helper/teacher in 2011, I found out about it from the mom of a deaf boy in my school with whom I was learning sign language from so that I could speak with him. Her name was Teresa Clark and she was often donating to the village and a good friend of the founder Zhang.
Was it hard to get a permission to shoot?
ZL: Not at all, because I know most of them personally, it was easy and Zhang knew I had no bad intentions so she trusted me with all access when it came to shooting. The only real problems we ran into was when we were shooting around the prison or in the prison. We were not allowed to shoot in the prison, the footage we have from inside are shot by a prison guard using our handy cam.
How long did you shoot?
ZL: We shot for a total of three weeks, two weeks in the village and then a few days after in and around Beijing city.
Was it hard to leave the kids after that time?
ZL: Yes, it was definitely difficult, as we had gotten close to them and they would call us “ge ge” & “jie jie” (older brother & older sister) and it was like we were family because we would literally do every single thing with them, from going to outings or working in the farms or visiting their parents in prison to eating every single meal together in the dining hall.
Do they ever return to their parents?
ZL: Yes, when their parents’ are released from prison, they have a three months period to sort their life out and then come and pick up their kids. The three month period is sort of so they have a chance to get a job and make a comfortable environment for themselves and their children before the kids go back to them. Or if the children turn 18, they are allowed to leave and build their own lives with or without their parents.
The leader of the village, does she get a lot of pressure from the government, because a few parents are in prison for political reasons?
ZL: I am not sure if the parents are in prison for political reasons. But she was reluctant to talk so much regarding the government as I think they haven’t quite supported the project for a long time and are only just now in recent years understanding what she’s actually trying to do. Sun Village is a completely Non-Governmental Organization. I think they rather not be involved with it as they are unsure of the movement she is trying to make.
How can she fund her beautiful project?
ZL: With donations but also with the land they have – through growing plantations and selling fruits and vegetables to the city people. They also recently opened a “dinosaur park” with the actual props used in Jurassic Park which was donated to the village and are hoping to get some funding through that from taking small ticket sales from people visiting.
Did you already find a distributor for „Sun Village“?
ZL: Yes, our distributor is NEW DOCS. At the moment we are waiting to hear back on if any countries are interested in buying our documentary. We spent the last 6 months working on another edit just for broadcast!
You won a few awards: does this help in finding a distributor?
ZL: Our distributor was a contact from another documentary filmmaker Arpad Bondy who is also our executive producer. He has made many award winning documentaries and luckily for us, he has decided to help us with our film. I think it helps if we are winning awards in bigger festivals like Cannes or Tribeca but for the smaller festivals it is usually about who you know.
Are there any festivals planned where we can watch your awesome documentary?
ZL: Not at the moment yet, but I am working on a new project with an open space on Elsenstraße (Elsenhof 106) where there’ll be a Vinyl Archive, sort of like a physical music library, but we are going to use it as an event space too so if enough people are interested I am sure we could organize a screening! We’ve only just put our film through the festival circuit so we are waiting to hear back about any awards. Currently, we’ve only won the golden award in a festival in Jakarta! The other festivals we’ve submitted to unfortunately is outside of Berlin.
Do you already have a new project in the making?
ZL: I’ve a couple of ideas for new film projects I want to make that are documentaries. I am trying to get funding for them but first I need to work a little on pre-production first so I know where the stories can go. Apart from that I am working with a multi-disciplinary production company called ∑ (Summe) on various projects that branches out to music and events.
What’s your own story? How did you become a director?
ZL: For me, I took film studies in school and realized it was the only subject I did my homework for. So I decided to find out if I actually liked it and so I worked in a production company in Shanghai then moved on to doing videos for a online media channel in Beijing and then subsequently went to film school in London and Berlin. For my co-director Matt, he went to film school in Prague and realized he wanted to write and direct films and so ended up in film school in Berlin to further pursue his passion (which is where we met and decided to do this documentary together) and he is now working as an editor doing really cool videos and some animation stuff too.
Do you do anything else like writing or acting?
ZL: Well… I definitely do not act at all haha! But I like to write. I haven’t written anything in awhile as I’ve been busy with a lot of other things but I am constantly writing down good ideas and one of these days I’ll try to turn one or a few of those ideas into another film! Matt, the co-director is also a writer and I think he has a couple of stories he’s written which we could turn into films at some point if so he wishes!