Lei Lei

by Matt Turner

Born in Nanchang in 1985, Lei Lei studied animation in Beijing, and has been working internationally as an artist and independent animator since competing his studies in 2009, making a number of short films that have been successful at festivals. Since 2017, he’s been a full time faculty member in the school of Experimental Animation of CalArts, spending most of his time in Los Angeles, and returning to China when he can.

Recycled (2012) by Lei Lei

Following several shorts that work with a similar aesthetic (Recycled (2010), and Hand Colored (2016), it is from this sense of in-betweenness that his first feature, Breathless Animals (2018) has been developed. Layering audio narration drawn from conversations with the filmmaker’s mother about life in 1950s China over found materials (videos, photos, and cuttings) sourced from the same period, Lei Lei creates an eclectic, dynamic portrait of a collective past, tapping into a pool of visual and oral memories drawn from previous generations to reconnect with his own identity.

Abstracting the visual materials through his animation techniques, stripping the interviews of much of their context, and distorting the sound through remixed music, collage is used in the film to blend the mass of materials together, turning a single, specifically personal oral history into something broader and more open-ended, much more mysterious, ambitious and enticing.

Trailer for Breathless Animals (2019) by Lei Lei

EoF: When did you start recording conversations with your mother for this film? How did you frame it for her?

LL: I’m always interviewing my family members. Most of my time is spent away from my hometown. I have family in Beijing but I work in California. So when I return, I always have conversations with them, and sometimes I record. For this, I started five years ago, recording my father, my grandfather, and also my mother. When I record, I don’t know how or if I will use the recordings. 

For this project, when I started mixing interviews with my mother with images I’d found and was creating, I noticed that the combinations weren’t fitting, and also were not necessarily respecting the stories my mother was telling. I found this interesting, the openness of the space between the sounds and the images, and what this might offer an audience. It was in this organising, or contrasting, of sound and images elements that Breathless Animals (2018) started to happen.

For me, it’s about surprises, so I avoid planning, which is exciting. For the interview with my mother, I didn’t worry about questions or pushing for specific lines of inquiry. I just gave her some topics or keywords, things like ‘mirror’, ‘bicycle’ or ‘boat’, to see if she had any memories related to these things. I knew I had lots of archival materials that might fit these ideas, so I wanted to see if she had any stories to match. I used keywords to link with her memory, to tap into her past. 

Still from Breathless Animals (2019) by Lei Lei

EoF: Why did you decide to hide that its your mother in the film. Only halfway through do we realise the speaker is the filmmaker’s mother, but until then she is just a woman talking. 

LL: It wasn’t my plan to hide my mother and my relationship to her. Her generation is not used to having a recorder in front of her like this, so when I interview her, she feels like she is facing a TV reporter. She’s nervous at the beginning, so the dynamic is that of a reporter and a subject, not mother and child. Halfway through, I told her that it was just a conversation and not a professional situation, and that she should take it easy. From that point, she became more free. It was a surprise to hear my mother speak this way, so I wanted to keep it in. It’s also important for the filmmaking, as the storytelling is based on the timeline in which it took place. I needed something halfway through to surprise or excite the audience, so I held back this information to create this. 

EoF: Do you feel that in general, people are more distanced from their pasts, and from the previous generations?

LL: Yeah, totally, and especially in China, after the process of rapid modernisation. We have a huge gap between the old and young generations. Young people go to the bigger cities and leave their hometowns, and they forget about their memories and their families, as they try to be seen to be involved in modernising. Another factor is the education system in China. Lots of historical events, even within recent history, are not discussed. You encounter the attitude that it has passed, so we should look forward. China is more and more international, and sometimes as a young man, I feel I need to question my identity. It’s important to understand what my family’s story looks like, and remember what my background is. That’s why I do a lot of projects with old photographs, with archives, and engaging with oral histories. It helps me to build up my identity, and remember where I came from. I’m from the South of China, went to university in Beijing, and now work in Los Angeles, and I move around a lot for film festivals and other travel. It’s important to take these chances to return to my family, and to focus on my identity and what it means.

Still from Breathless Animals (2019) by Lei Lei

EoF: Yeah, it’s a way to keep you connected, to retain some roots. Regarding the visual materials for the film, were did you find those, and what were you thinking about when you started to manipulate them and put them together to create motion?

LL: I found the archive and old photos in second hand fairs, and on the internet. We have something like eBay in China, where you can find some beautiful old photos. I found some video on Chinese YouTube also. I scanned and reprinted everything, to make it fit together, and to start to make it move. Important for me was thinking about how to change or transfer the meaning of the image, as it existed originally compared to how I was using it. None of the images were from my family, and maybe they all had their own stories, but not stories that I know. When i collaged them, or mixed in new sound with these images, the audience gets the chance to make up stories about them, to build up their own interpretations or bring a new meaning to the original images. This is what really interested me.

In contemporary cinema, filmmakers should give more agency to the audience. Cinema is a black box. The filmmaker brings some shadow to the cinema. How to give meaning to that shadow can be left up to the audience. That’s why I made this film. 

EoF: It’s like leaving some space for the viewer to use their imagination?

LL: Yes.

Still from Breathless Animals (2019) by Lei Lei

EoF: I wanted to ask also whether you see this as a documentary film. How does it fit into non-fiction, or is it something else for you?

LL: *Laughs*. That’s an interesting question. When I started, I was thinking of it as animation, as that’s where my background is. My work shows at animation festivals usually, but when the Berlinale selected the film, they gave it the title ‘creative documentary’. A Chinese festival just selected it, and classed it as ‘live action’. I submitted the film to some animation festivals, and they did not select it, saying that it wasn’t animation technically. For me, its very interesting how it is perceived but I don’t think it’s a problem. I tried to make a work that makes sense in a cinema, I don’t care how it’s classified beyond that.

EoF: Did you ever worry that you might be doing a disservice to the things you found by changing their meaning, that it might be a problem if the original stories were lost?

LL: I didn’t think of it like that. I was happy to bring new life to some images that would otherwise be lost in the archive. I also liked that I was linking people in the images together in order to build new stories. I think this is respectful to the archive. If people discuss the images, it’s more interesting to me. Some I know the origin of, but others not, and now they have a new possibility, in what audiences bring to them.

One person’s oral history is just one history, it’s a very narrow part of a country’s overall history, or of the world’s wider story. By bringing in the audience, it widens the narrative. When the film screened in Berlin, the audience applied their country’s own history and cultural memories to the images, but in New York, discussion was more about the format of the film and the creative processes behind it. In Korea, audiences were much more interested in the story behind the film, the relationship between my mother and I.

Books on Books (2016) by Lei Lei

EoF: When you were editing it together, what were you thinking about? Specifically in terms of the relationship between the sound and the image.

LL: All the sound in the film is from a tape that I recorded in 1988, a family tape. The sound is my memories. A lot of the tape was broken; it couldn’t be played. A bit like memories do, it had degraded. So I used these broken tapes to make some noises that I then used as sound effects for the film, mixing them against the images. When I was editing, I couldn’t explain how I organised everything. It was a long process. Sometimes I had an idea, but other times I was completely lost. I put things together and it started to make sense, almost like magic. 

I’ve worked with music before. I’ve been in bands, I do some freestyle rapping.

EoF: In Chinese?

LL: Yeah, in Chinese, and I think this might have influenced the film. The different kind of sounds and images are like words or sentences that can be thrown together. When I do freestyle, I just make it happen on the stage. When I edit, there is no logic, I just freestyle in the same way.

This is Not a Time to Lie (2013) by Lei Lei

EoF: I also wanted to ask how this film links in with your previous films? I read that you are making a film about your grandfather now? How does this one connect to the others before it, or is it different to the shorts?

LL: I think this film is very different from my previous work. Most of my films before have been very colourful, and story focused. I realised that if I kept doing that sort of style of film, it would not sustain. It’s very narrow, and almost more like motion graphics. I wouldn’t say this style isn’t good, but I wanted to open other kinds of doors, as I’d hope I would have wider abilities than just that style. When I screened these films in cinemas, I’ve been thinking about what sort of work could have very powerful energy in that environment. I tried to develop a new language for myself.

I started to work with old photos with Recycled (2012), five or six years ago, and also in Hand Colored (2016), and I made This is Not a Time to Lie (2014) using family materials, so there was a legacy in my short film work that led into this film. This feature film is different though because I was thinking about it as a feature from the start, so I tried to organise different materials in a timeline, to tell a story. I also was looking to transfer the meaning of the images, as I spoke about before. When I working with the colourful, motion graphic style films, I know what I will do from the beginning. I’m more like a designer. I tell the audiences what they will see, and what they will feel. With this feature, I’m not creating new images, I’m just organising and collaging existing imagery, building new relationships, and changing meanings. It’s a totally different process for me.

My… My… (2011) by Lei Lei

EoF: I’m curious how you got into animation originally. What was it that first attracted you?

LL: My father was a book designer. I studied graphic design at university, but I was mostly interested in music, mainly hip hop, and skateboarding – young man stuff. Graphic design wasn’t enough for me, animation proved more interesting, as I could bring more interest points together, speak using different languages. Animation is the most interesting medium for me, because I can put moving images, noises, and music all together. I can put energy and emotion into this medium, and I can work fast. Animation is also an international language, and you can travel with the films to different festivals. At the time I was crazy for short animations, and crazy for festival travelling.

At the beginning, it seemed like a young person’s medium, a young person’s language. But as I continued I started to ask questions about myself. What is experimental film, and what sort of work makes sense in the cinema. I read a lot of Andre Bazin, and studied wider in cinema. I wanted to not just make films that look cool, but films that have rigid systems and ideas.

Still from Breathless Animals (2019) by Lei Lei

EoF: Lastly then, you said that animation is an international language. Do you think your work is similarly international, or is there something more specifically Chinese about it?

LL: Of course, I think that film is an international language. People are excited to watch films from different countries and different cultural backgrounds, especially at festival. But fo me, my identity is Chinese. I didn’t grow up with hamburgers, I grew up with rice. I can’t change that. In my films, I need to respect my background, and respect my family memories. But this is also why I left lots of space in Breathless Animals. I didn’t know if people would be interested in just listening to a woman talking about oral histories for an hour, so I tried to make her stories as open as possible. People can find their own memories in there, and make links to their own life. It is open.

Lei Lei’s Breathless Animals screens on Sunday 8th September at ICA London, as part of Open City Documentary Festival 2019. The screening is presented in partnership with Edge of Frame.

© 2019 Matt Turner