Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“I never made one film in film school,” said Xiaolu Guo at her talk in the LPAC cinema on Thursday, September 25. “I was so much in love with literature, I spent nearly every night writing novels.”
Guo is a Chinese filmmaker and author who has produced work in both Chinese and English. Her experience living in several different countries has significantly informed her work.
In her talk, Guo began by giving the audience a brief sense of her history. “I’m a very typical village youth from China, born in the 1970s. We are all desperate to find a better life, both materialistically and intellectually.”
She then stated that her first meaningful experience with poetry was with beat poets like Frank O’Hara. “His work was very easy to translate into Chinese. Shakespeare doesn’t work at all, and Victorian literature doesn’t really work well in Chinese. But I remember the impact of the poem ‘Orange’ by Frank O’Hara,” Guo said.
Her previous exposure to art had primarily involved works with overt political messages. “I grew up in a communist propaganda environment, my parents were both rigid communists,” Guo said. Her familiarization with beat poetry changed the way she thought about art. “I remember that impact on me–poems can be simple,” she said.
Guo wrote from a young age and was published when she was young. She decided to leave her village and attend the Beijing Film Academy, where she studied in the Film Theory department. After spending 10 years involved with film school in China as both a student and a teacher, Guo went to the United Kingdom to get another Master Associates in film. During her time in film school, she maintained a love of literature and continued to write prolifically. Eventually she transitioned to producing work almost exclusively in English.
On Sunday, September 21, two of her films Late at Night, Voices of Ordinary Madness and Once Upon a Time Proletariat were screened at the LPAC cinema. The two are part of a trilogy Guo has planned called Tomorrow. Both documentaries collect experiences from individuals living in poverty and study the effects of globalization and capitalism on a microscopic scale. “Both films are quite simple, direct cinema. […] These films felt really easy and natural,” Guo said.
As a filmmaker, Guo has prioritized the emotional qualities of her films over technical precision, especially in her documentaries. She has often filmed her subjects alone, without any kind of crew, in order to better connect with the people she interviews.
“She’s interested in sexuality, she’s interested in commodity culture, she’s interested in labor and being marginalized by the forces of labor. I’m really interested in the fact there’s a subjective portrayal [in her films] as well as an objective one,” said Patricia White, Chair of the Film and Media Studies Department.
White, whose academic interests include women and film in the global realm, sought to bring Guo to campus to explore these issues at Swarthmore.
White was interested in the way issues pertaining to gender are increasingly being explored abroad in film. “There’s not that many films by women in Hollywood. There’s 7% women directors, and it hasn’t changed for 30 years,” White said. “Even though it’s still bad pretty much everywhere else too, I really feel like in the last couple decades lots of changes happened where there were suddenly more women. There were really incredible, prize-winning films from places like Iran, Lebanon and Argentina directed by women.”
Guo’s past work, both in film and writing, has been prolific. She has produced a film per year for several years in addition to having published five books in English and six books in Chinese.
“I think I’ve slowed down a bit. Once I entered forty years old birthday, everything goes very slow for some reason. So watch out, do as much as you can before your forty years old birthday,” Guo said.
Featured image courtesy of Jake Moon ’17/The Daily Gazette.