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IDA Member Spotlight: Xiaolu Wang

By Anisa Hosseinnezhad

A photo of an androgynous person of Asian descent with a light smile at the camera. They have a dark shaved head and brown eyes and are wearing a pink velvet v-neck. The photo frames a photo print from a Polaroid camera; the print is lying flat on a silver texture, with a cat's paw gently lying on the top right corner of the print.

Headshot of Xiaolu Wang.

Xiaolu Wang was born between the Yellow River and the Helan Mountains to a family estranged from their own Hui Muslim traditions. As a teenager, they followed their mother’s footsteps as immigrant settlers to Turtle Island and, since then, drifted around the homelands of the Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples. Xiaolu’s work has been screened at friends’ pop-up food projects and living rooms, Images Festival, Mimesis Documentary Festival, Taiwan International Film Festival, Courtisane Festival, and Tacoma Film Festival. They infrequently contribute to Mn Artists, a critical arts writing platform of the Walker Art Center, and translate for 單讀, a publisher from One Way Street studio. They are a DocX Archive Lab Fellow, a Getting Real Fellow and currently working towards an MFA at Northwestern University’s Documentary Media program.

IDA: Please tell us a little about yourself and how you locate yourself and your practice.

The ideas of positionality and locationality have been quite elusive to me for the longest time. Dislocation, as a result of moving to the U.S. at a time when my own agency and sense of self were intertwined with forces of assimilation, remained a constant tension. It wasn’t until I encountered a kindred spirit, Poh Lin Lee’s work, that I found the language and affirmations for my own center.

Poh talks about describing herself not in terms of “who I am” but “where I am.” This made a lot of sense to me because who I am is in relationship with the context around me in various scales. Who/what I am in dialogue with, listening with, sharing space with, remembering with, grieving with, fight with/against all shape my perspectives and way of being in the world. Nowadays, I locate myself in my studies of documentary forms, in a rigorous process of unlearning the colonial logic, in challenging ancient ancestral fears, and in sharing warmth with artists and tricksters who are in solidarity with collective struggles.

IDA: Can you share with our readers about your works and practice?

My work often deals with language, misunderstandings, memory, interiority, friendship, listening, and poetry. Something that feels new lately in my practice is the presence of ease and time. I am paying more attention to the feeling of ease as I develop a more serious relationship with my work. The seed of a project often starts from remembering a conversation, an experience, or a place. I take videos and voice recordings on my phone on a daily basis, so I’ve developed a personal archive of audio-visual experiences, and sometimes I just WhatsApp them to my friends.

Video correspondences are very alive in my process, and they help me to pay attention to memory and affect. Most of the time, I also intentionally refrain from recording anything to be more present with experiences through the senses. I trust that these senses form potent memories, and they make themselves significant through time and movement. The presence of time is also a part of the work because I often revisit my own archive after some distance and time passing.

I am allowing the editing to happen at its own pace by giving it space and perspective. I recently revisited a long clip of my family visiting my grandmother’s grave in northwestern China. I shot it with my hand-held phone on the way to the Hui Cemetery. It was only later, after sending it to another friend as I remembered the experience fondly, he gave me the idea that it is in itself a film already. After some time had passed, I translated the dialogues into English and was delighted that more meanings emerged and more forms of the work expanded. I am now adapting that experience into a short film about rituals and inquiries about faith, and I am excited to present the original one-shot clip at the 2024 edition of the Courtisane Festival.

IDA: You work as a filmmaker, translator, and curator. How do those roles influence your view of cinema and shape your own work?

I am foremost a cinephile but also a cinephile in recovery. I am unlearning the habit of having conversations with references. I consume a lot of film, radio, podcasts, music, reading, and people-watching. Sometimes, I forget whether something actually happened or whether it happened in a film or a book. Filmmaking and life are merging more in the realm of dreams. I fall asleep a lot during film viewing. It took me three years to make it through the Cemetery of Splendor because I would always fall asleep around the same spot. During undergraduate studies, I was often half-awake through a lot of films that are considered a part of the canon. There’s something about that experience I want to interrogate more–the relationship between liminal consciousness and film viewing. I love expanding my media palate and encountering new work in unlikely places. I always love asking what other people are reading and watching, and if something comes up more than once, I try to find it right away. I also rely on chance and spontaneity to collaborate with my views on cinema.

In terms of being a translator, I think it’s more of a relationship of agony with language and the untranslatable. I am always obsessed with finding the precise word in both English and Mandarin to articulate a thought. It bothers me that we have such little vocabulary to describe our experiences; it’s irresponsible to me to convey meaning with viral words and phrases. I am always inspired by writers and translators who give language new life force by arranging the words and sentences and form with simplicity and sharpness. A favorite translation is a version of the Tao Te Ching from Ursula K. Le Guin. I disliked most translations by Asian language white man scholars, they are either too literal or too opaque. Ursula’s command of the English language infused the ancient text with wonder and spaciousness. It’s a language that contains and invites, which is a kind of intelligence. The pursuit of precision is also an aspiration in terms of cinema. Cinema is in kinship with the poetics, which doesn’t necessarily follow the logic of precision. But the films that touch me always convey meaning in a precisely ambiguous or ambiguously precise way.

IDA: You were amongst our first Getting Real Fellow cohort in 2022. How did the Getting Real '22 fellowship experience shift your work and view of our industry?

Being a part of the fellowship is a tremendous affirmation of the development of my work and voice. I remember this feeling of ease when writing the application for the fellowship. It was a reparative process to write honestly and playfully and being seen for it. Being in the same space with other artists who occupy very diverse relations with cinema is truly a privilege. I loved meeting other filmmakers, critics, and film programmers and vibing beyond the interest of cinema even though it is what brought us together.

I also got to travel and visit some fellows after our first convening. It was very valuable that the fellowship had a loose yet intentional structure. Fellows were paired up to lead workshops on special topics every month. I always looked forward to them and the space that built upon past conversations. We got to get more intimate and make space for topics that are not in the webinars, podcasts, internet, or social media. We got to have conversations that can only happen by sharing presences. There’s also the urgency to be with each other with less pretense and more vulnerability. More voices are voicing, and more relations are relating.

The fellowship experience shifted my view of the industry in ways where I feel more confident in forging my own path. It gave me a sense of connection and healing that is no longer elusive and impossible. I am more excited to go about finding that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to me, and I feel supported even from a small corner of the world.

IDA: Where do you reside today, and what are you working on these days?

I reside on the ancestral land of the Council of Three Fires: Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations, now known as Chicago. I am working on learning new tools and approaches, which include emerging technologies like A.I., game software like Unreal Engine, and music production software like Ableton. I am leaning into live performances, film essays, improvisation, experimental sound, conversations, and correspondences. The seeds for my thesis film are being planted. I am calling in new relations to an old place and old relations that can feel anew. I am continuing the work of longing, migrating identities, and embodying a corner of the world only I could see with my ears on my feet.