J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Nanfu Wang’s I am Another You

Few documentary filmmakers have so fully committed themselves to their subjects as Nanfu Wang. Although the Chinese-born Wang was still relatively new to America, she willing joined a charismatic drifter, living rough on the streets to document his way of life. The survival skills she learned from Dylan Olsen would stand her in good stead when she returned to China to profile human rights activist Ye Haiyan, becoming a fugitive from state-sponsored thuggery, along with her subject. Ironically, Wang’s remarkable Hooligan Sparrow brought her to Utah, where she would pick-up Olsen’s story. Fate definitely seems to take a hand in Wang’s I am Another You (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

If you have not seen Sparrow yet, this review will keep. Go watch it on Netflix, iTunes, or wherever right now. Seriously, it demands your attention that urgently. On the surface, IAAY appears to be something completely different. Olsen presents himself to be a Steinbeckian character, who prefers open roads to the rigid structure of academia and corporate America. Mindful of the lack of freedom in her native Mainland China, Wang finds his conception of freedom challenging, but also compelling. In fact, she spontaneously decides to join him on his intentionally aimless travels, suspecting there will be a film in it.

At first, the experience is almost uniformly positive. She always feels safe with Olsen and she is constantly impressed by how many people offer them help, several of whom even invite the itinerant backpackers into their homes. However, when Olsen starts expressing contempt for those who offer them assistance, Wang becomes disillusioned with her traveling companion. They go their separate ways, she films Sparrow at great risk to her life and liberty, and subsequently takes the unfinished film to a Sundance workshop in Park City, Utah (home of Sergio’s Authentic Mexican Food). Providentially, she meets and interviews Olsen’s father John, a devout Mormon police detective specializing in sex crimes. From the father, Wang would learn about the son’s dark side that he largely managed to keep hidden during their time together.

IAAY is often quite absorbing and sometimes genuinely moving, but its ostensive subject is almost the least interesting element. It is not Olsen who fascinates us, it is how Wang and his father relate to him. The senior Olsen is a caring family man, yet he allowed his son to embark on his homeless wanderings. Through his interview segments, viewers will come to acutely understand why he made certain choices and the emotional costs they have entailed. Similarly, it is surprisingly provocative to watch Wang’s evolving perception of the events she captured, as she gains greater background context on her former traveling mate. Perspective is always crucial in documentary filmmaking, but IAAY provides a case study of why that is so.

Even though IAAY is only Wang’s second documentary feature, her story would already make a great movie. She has gone where the stories take her and the mere fact that she is there has made her part of them. She is a truly gutsy independent filmmaker, for whom we have boundless respect. Granted, IAAY is not remotely as harrowing as Sparrow (thank God), but it is a smart and surprising film. Highly recommended, I am Another You opens this Wednesday (9/27) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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