DAE Talks With: Fan Wu & Venice De Castro Atienza Director & Producer of XiXi

XiXi leads Fan to explore how our bodies remember our feelings.

Battles fought again and again, 
Losses endured, resilience regained.
Who comprehends the impossibility to tame a stray. 
That wild feet won’t be constrained by any road.
–Wanru “XiXi” Yang

The weight of a love one holds for someone can feel like something light and freeing. It also can come with a heaviness that’s almost too much to bear. Fan Wu’s début feature, XiXi, navigates filming a portrait of a close friend – one who has a powerful influence over her – while also creating the many spaces that can hold a multivalent exploration of what it means to live a free life. Very early in the film, XiXi tells Fan that the most important thing is to document her state of freedom. But freedom, like most abstract concepts – such as love – needs boundaries, a framework that makes it possible to recognize that elusive state of being. Xixi deftly weaves several storylines together to explore family, friendship, womanhood, personal autonomy, and the hard emotional work of self-transformation. Its story revolves around Fan’s friendship with XiXi, a captivating performance artist, dancer, writer, and wanderer that Fan met in Berlin. Filmed over the course of several years, the finished piece moved through many creative iterations. Through much trial and error and leaps of faith, Fan, the film’s producer Venice Atienza (director of Last Days at Sea, 2021), editor Anna Magdalena Silva Schlenker, and the rest of the small team, created a work that beautifully blends the intimate video diaries of XiXi with the filmmakers’ own footage in order to gently, but persistently, expose intergenerational wounds and entrenched beliefs around what it means to be a “good” mother. 

Fan and Venice met when they both attended DocNomads, a two-year Erasmus Mundus joint master’s degree program in documentary filmmaking. After bonding in film school and helping one another with their student projects, Fan and Venice formed their own production company in 2019 called Svemirko Audio Visual Art Productions. “Svemirko”, originating from the former-Yugoslav region, translates as “dear little universe” or “a person from the cosmos”. 

A Taiwan-Philippines-South Korea co-production, XiXi will have its premiere in the international competition strand at this year’s Hot Docs in Toronto. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, I had the chance to convene with Fan calling in from Taipei and Venice calling in from Mumbai to talk about the making of XiXi, intertwined with a discussion about the overriding relationship that sustains them both – their own deep and trusting friendship and professional commitment to one another and how that makes everything that seems impossible in both life and art, eminently possible, as long as they can do it together. 

Pamela Cohn (PC): At its heart, XiXi is about meeting someone, perhaps randomly or unexpectedly, who gives us permission to break free from our traps, our own prisons, all the limitations we tend to impose upon ourselves. Before we dive into talking about the various collaborations the film itself encompasses, what made the two of you decide to commit to one another in such a profound way? After years of working together, what continues to surprise and inspire you about this personal and professional partnership you’ve fostered?

Fan Wu (FW): We usually answer this question in a brief way in that: We met one another in DocNomads where we lived together and so grew close to one another. Venice invited me to do sound on a student film. It was just the two of us. And I invited her to work as my DoP for the project I was working on. We had a lot of intense times talking with one another. For me, Venice was someone I could talk to about what I was uncertain about. I don’t have a film background; this program was my first exposure to filmmaking education, so I didn’t have a lot of confidence. There were things I didn’t feel like I could talk about with my teacher or other classmates, but I could talk about them with Venice. All of my projects, even in school, start from very small things – but they feel big for me. I felt she offered understanding, no judgment on me for having intense feelings for very banal things. That understanding has only grown deeper the longer we’ve worked together. It was very natural for me to describe my initial feelings after meeting XiXi to Venice in a way I could not with anyone else. She would listen and want to know more. I give that to her, as well, in a similar way.

Venice Atienza (VA): Fan and I also share a lot in the way we view life outside of filmmaking. That’s something that makes the work of making films a lot easier. As Fan said, we lived together during DocNomads with another Taiwanese student for the second semester. I also felt this safety with her she mentions. I felt at home with Fan in every way. We both feel like life and the work that we do will always converge. It will always inform how we approach film. When the film process becomes confusing, as it often does, we always have that common way of understanding and give one another the space and time to step back. It’s very different from the ways in which I’ve worked with other people where filmmaking is separated from life itself. With Fan, I always feel like I’m working with someone who also is living life alongside me, on parallel paths, in a way. It makes the experience so much richer because I can become more open.

XiXi expresses herself in her everyday life movements.

PC: One of the many complexities about XiXi is that it consists of both the footage your team shot and XiXi’s personal video diary footage. These two seams are knit together, allowing a deeper understanding not only of XiXi but the ways in which her story becomes ever more expansive –her marriage to and divorce from Médéric, a Frenchman she met in Beijing, her relationship with her and Médéric’s daughter, Nina, her insistence on living a wild and free life that makes a grounded family life impossible. Was this convergence in play from the beginning? 

FW: When I first met XiXi, she mentioned to me that she made video diaries, and I was so intrigued by that. It was a very fresh idea to me that someone made daily diaries, not in order to make a film, but just as an intuitive need. I was so curious about what these diaries could contain, and she wanted to share them with me. A week later, she brought her hard drive to my flat in Berlin and we watched them together over the weekend. I saw so many beautiful moments. The scene where she’s playing the guitar with Nina is in the film. There were scenes like that with a static frame, and of course some were her with her GoPro running around being wild. For someone fresh out of film school, this was all mind blowing for me because everything I shoot is meant to serve a film; for XiXi, there’s nothing behind it except to have fun.

Initially, I thought I would make a “found footage” film where I would edit her diaries, making it clear that there is someone who is making these videos and someone else who is editing them. I tried it out and made a version while I was still in Berlin. I flew to France to visit XiXi to show her what I’d made. I also showed it to some friends, to Venice, and there was the realization that something was missing. If the film consists of just her footage, there’s no distance from which to question anything. Why is someone editing another person’s personal archive? I had so many questions about XiXi, as a friend, as a woman, and I wanted to ask those questions, but in this version, there was no room to ask anything. But when I started filming her, I noticed that she was different. When she was self-filming, she would frame it and then do something inside that frame. But when I filmed her, she got to relax in a different way because someone else was holding the camera. It allowed a different aspect of her. The plan was to visit her several times and film with her over one year and during the times I wasn’t there, she’d continue to record herself. After filming and editing for another year, I began to notice that I was nowhere in the story. I wasn’t seen or heard, making my role in the film quite ambiguous. Why am I there? What is my place in this story? That’s when I decided to ask Venice to come join us so she could film in order to allow me and XiXi to interact without the camera between us.

VA: Thinking about those invisible connections that make all the logistical work happen isn’t something I’ve thought about in a long time. It was part of the film’s progression to have me there alongside Fan and XiXi in order for them to start to understand each other, to better find the questions at the heart of the story. Fan was really fascinated with XiXi, but not very aware of how XiXi was affecting her. As she’s realizing what XiXi’s story means to her, she’s also realizing what her own presence means for the film. It wasn’t easy at all to convince Fan to be seen in the ways she’s seen in the film. That’s a process that only happens over a long period of time and the Fan who started the film is very different from how she is now.

PC: And when was the decision made to include your grandmother’s story, Fan? You describe growing up with this bitterly sad woman who’d never been able to realize her own state of freedom. There’s also the portrayal of XiXi’s mom, Peach Blossom, and her story, which is eerily similar to XiXi’s, in fact. When did it become apparent that it was essential to include these women’s stories from another generation? 

FW: There was a precise moment when I realized that. It was the first time Venice joined a shoot. We were in Montpellier [France] with XiXi. At one point, Venice and I took a walk, just the two of us. I had already introduced her to XiXi and we had filmed a bit. I told Venice that I was so amazed by a friend of XiXi’s who is also very wild and free and how they both had such power to express themselves. Venice said, “Oh, Fan, you really have a thing for these wild women.” [laughing] And I realized how true that was, that there was something to that. Most people perceive me as a soft, mild person but most of my friends were wild and intuitive and XiXi was the pinnacle example of whatever it was that I was looking for. What was it inside me that was so intrigued by living like this? From then on, I was trying to answer that question. At that time, my grandmother had just passed away and I was still very unsettled by her death. I found a space to think about my grandmother when I was with XiXi, thinking why certain people think so differently about things, to get to feel them processing something inside themselves that comes from their own particular personal history. That was the familiarity to me and maybe part of the reason I was so drawn to her, a woman who does not want to play by the rules of her society.

However, I also thought that all this would stay in my director’s notes when writing applications. I didn’t feel at the time that I needed to say that explicitly in the film because it was such a distant connection from another time, and it was part of my inner world. I felt I needed to focus solely on the present time I had with XiXi in order to keep finding ways to raise my questions. Anna also edited Venice’s début feature, Last Days at Sea. She is the kind of dedicated editor who consistently asks a lot of deep questions, a lot of “why” questions. And in every one of those exchanges, I talked about my grandmother. That’s when I began to write the voiceover and go back into my own family’s archive. It was very painful, actually. We didn’t talk about my grandmother in my family, especially after she died. But Anna told me that if I don’t take the opportunity to talk about her in the film, I would lose the chance to heal, I would just end up carrying it. My family has watched the film and for the first time, finally, we did talk about my grandmother. Anna was right.


The film travels in between the realities and inner worlds of XiXi and director Fan.

PC: In the scenes with XiXi and her mother in China, there is this kind of cavalier mention on her mom’s part that sexual abuse and assault on little girls is actually quite a common thing in their culture. The shock of that for me was how casually she said it and the intense denial at play around it. What were the conversations around balancing that darker, more difficult material with the narrative you had in mind?  

VA: A lot of time was spent finding this balance. In talking about the death of Fan’s grandmother, we were also trying to figure out how to handle such an experience. As with XiXi and her mother’s stories, we needed a way to hold them inside the film. The outward actions of both XiXi and Fan to find freedom had quite a lot to do with these things they carry inside them. It was a constant attempt at trying out what Fan thought she was ready to say. We constantly found ourselves looking at an assembled cut thinking the film was moving towards its final lock. And then, in the middle of the night, there’s a call: “It doesn’t feel right.” Then we would try again, going back to the writing process. 

There’s a scene in the beginning of the film that talks about our edges, and how society dulls our edges over time – I don’t know how many versions of this scene exist. It took so much time to even recognize the pain of their existences, let alone how to make that visible in the film. As the person receiving the edits from Anna and Fan, this was the process that needed to take place. Does it feel right now? Is it like this? Does it have this reflection of life and film? Is it already clear to Fan? Is she ready to talk about it, and if she is, then we put it here, in this way, and in these words. We figured out what we were able to do, what we were able to face. That’s the process. There were things we weren’t able to face, in fact, and so those things are not in the film. We did what we could in the moment to give meaning and form to what we could face.

FW: That’s a good description of it. I’d like to add that Anna and I both knew how much dealing with the various traumas was important. In one of the definitions of freedom we were trying to express is freedom from the traumas attached to cultural heritage. To understand XiXi’s trauma – the sexual violence both she and her mother talk about, along with my grandmother’s story – I feel the spectator has much more understanding of all of us. At the same time, as editors, we were afraid that audiences would define the two characters just by those traumas alone. We didn’t want to supply easy associations like that from the beginning. We wanted audiences to experience the strength of these characters, the active choices they’re exercising, to know and connect with them first before all that is revealed. Anna and I would work together for a few weeks, then send a version to all the producers who would give feedback, and there would be a back and forth until we were sure that the entire experience we wanted to share was there.

PC: What were the discussions around all this with XiXi in terms of your creative process, one that was emerging as it was happening?

FW: Venice and I talked a lot about how involved XiXi should be in these decisions and how much space I personally needed in which to explore. Obviously, you can see XiXi is very charismatic, so finding the right dynamic between us was part of the challenge. In the first years of making this, I attempted to share everything with her down to which pitching forum we were going to, what kind of proposals I was writing, all the scenes I was editing with Anna as we experimented. XiXi had seen my previous film; she knew how different I was from her. She also watched Last Days at Sea. But after a year of sharing cuts with her, she told me: Okay, just send me something when you have a full cut. She told me she wanted to see that and before that, well, I should do whatever I wanted! [laughing] It became this very exciting – and very terrifying – time of not knowing what she would think about what we were making. We had agreed from the very beginning that if there was anything XiXi, Médéric, or even Nina were not happy about, we were ready to change it. But we needed to wait until we had a rough cut to show them. I showed XiXi the film on a call like this one where she put her screen next to the film and she watched it while I recorded the whole experience of her watching it.

The friendship between XiXi and Fan changes each of them inside out. This is the scene where XiXi shaves Fan’s hair.

PC: You watched her watching the film – wow! [laughter]

FW: She was crying and laughing, able to see the entire thing edited together with her footage and ours in a context that lives outside of her. She found it so interesting to watch herself as herself but also as another person. It created an intense mirroring effect. We even asked her to send the scenes shot in China to her mom for her feedback so that everyone featured was shown a cut, an opportunity for them to provide feedback of their own before we locked everything. Even all versions of the posters I’m designing for the film right now, XiXi gets to see.

In terms of this separation of our friendship and the relationship between me as a filmmaker and her as the subject of my film: In the beginning, I was so carried away by XiXi, I would just blindly follow wherever she led me and let her call the shots. When I would return to Taiwan and look at the footage, I would see someone that isn’t me, really. That was totally against the idea of the film. I was worshipping her, basically, and it was so obvious in the footage. As a director, I had to grow up and claim my own ideas. I think we were both ready for me to do this and when it finally started to happen, this made XiXi really happy!

XiXi and her daughter Nina.

PC: Let’s talk about Nina and her presence in both XiXi’s life and in the film. As you are emerging as a filmmaker in the film, Fan, you’re also documenting the emergence of a personality, a child who’s pretty much grown up in front of a camera, still figuring out what it means to be a separate entity from both of her parents. As Nina grows older, Médéric becomes more and more judgmental of XiXi’s life, at one point wanting to make further restrictions on her about seeing the child.

FW: Since the beginning of the edit, it was clear that we needed these other storylines. Not so much in service to what the film is about, but through the inclusion of XiXi’s family, we see that if XiXi didn’t have a family, if she didn’t have her child, she could do whatever she wanted to. She has a desire to be close to Nina, but she also wants to be a free person and those are what the stakes are. When Anna and I watched the footage from XiXi, she did put most of her focus on Nina. She loved filming her and she started wanting to make these video diaries after giving birth to her, wanting to document Nina’s growth. Each important turning point in XiXi’s life involves Nina. Nina is also very charismatic and it’s clear to me that she understands a lot more than she might be able to express verbally. She would also take the camera and film with us. It’s been amazing to see her grow up with the film.

VA: Fan would always say that XiXi’s gravity is Nina. Nina represents one choice in a life, one aspect that XiXi would like to keep but it’s difficult to do that in combination with the life she wants for herself. And Médéric, too, has seen many versions of the film so he could offer comments. Life still happens after a film shoot. At the time we were ready to show a close-to-final cut to him, his and XiXi’s relationship was in a much better place. Legally, he is Nina’s guardian and we wanted to check with him in the same way we wanted to check with everyone. But no one ever lost sight of the fact that this is Fan’s film. My mind becomes a bit blown thinking about this because that’s what time can do. Médéric is not the same guy now who became so judgmental of XiXi as a person and as a mother. It’s their lives we’re portraying but it’s a moment in time because, of course, those lives continue after the film is finished. It was important for us to hear from them so that we wouldn’t imagine everything was okay. That was the only way we could move forward with certain decisions.

FW: In the middle of the editing, I feel we really took a risk in not showing cuts anymore until we were done. But neither did we want to censor ourselves. It was really moving to hear them acknowledge that all of our efforts paid off. After all these years, I’m so happy that I’m still making films with friends. And those friendships also include the people we document, like Reyboy from Last Days at Sea. We just met two weeks ago in Manila with Venice. We made a film about him but our friendship with Reyboy doesn’t end there. XiXi and I talk every day; I talk regularly with Médéric as well. This shows me that my artmaking and my life can blend. This was something I didn’t imagine I would have. I went to film school with the understanding that filmmaking is a profession and life is something you organize outside of that. Now I know that it’s possible that I can have a life making things I like with people I love in such an organic connection. I even make daily diaries now like XiXi does. It’s so great to look back, even in the most difficult times, and realize I had so much fun doing this.

VA: For some months now, I’ve been telling Fan that I don’t think I’m going to make another film. Sometimes I feel that way. Life and artmaking are also very close together for me. So much so that when life is not good, I’m exhausted and just do my best to survive. Lately, I’m trying to re-frame everything as we’re getting ready to release the film. Another producer friend tells me that Fan and I are not very practical, that we always take the longest road for everything. We like to try a lot of things. And that makes me think that maybe it takes living a certain way in order to allow yourself to connect to the world. More and more, it becomes clear to me that the making of things will always be intertwined with how I live my life and what I fight for. What are the things we will try to dismantle so that we can live more closely with each other?

The first time Fan and I pitched this project in 2018 at Docs Port Incheon in South Korea, I told her, even if we make a film or many films and become famous, I hoped that we wouldn’t be hollow. At the time I said it, I didn’t really know what I meant by that. I think I meant that I hoped I would still be moved by life. It’s important to live life and be touched by it and that all the logistics of funding and making a film will be informed by that. It sounds nice, but it’s very hard. If you explain to someone who might be interested in the project that you want to work in a way where you check in with your protagonists at every turn, that doesn’t give them a lot of confidence and they might say no. What I find precious in this work we’ve done together is the realization that we can build systems that align to what’s important to us. Maybe it’s fine to take as much time as we want while also recognizing the privilege of that. It doesn’t always have to feel like a battle. We can build things together. If you’re not alone, you can go down any path in any way you want to and continue to keep close those things that are most valuable and important to you. 

XiXi, Fan and Venice, 2019

Pamela Cohn is a Helsinki-based critic, writer, film & video curator, story structure consultant, and festival moderator. She’s the author of Lucid Dreaming: Conversations with 29 Filmmakers(OR Books, New York & London, 2020), and co-producer and host of The Lucid Dreaming Podcast: Conversations on Cinema, Art & Moving Image http://www.pamelacohn.com/