Sabrina Zhao: Between Abu Dhabi, Sichuan, and Toronto
By Sherry Wu
Published on April 26th, 2021
Uncertainty is my first impression of The Good Woman of Sichuan (四川好女人), directed by emerging filmmaker and NYU Abu Dhabi alumna (‘19) Sabrina Zhao. Set in Leshan, Sichuan, it tells the story of a traveling woman who meets the imaginary self in an unfamiliar place. She accidentally loses control of the camera and drifts into a polyrhythmic experience of stasis. This is Zhao’s first feature film (87 minutes), and it has been invited to screen at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival Forum section, MoMA Doc Fortnight, and CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Festival).
This sentiment of uncertainty penetrates every aspect of the film — it is in Zhao’s approach to the subject and in the cinematic rendering of the story. In the seen and said, and the unseen and unsaid. The boundary between fiction and reality is a mysterious space where the private and collective memories merge in Zhao’s career as a filmmaker.
The title, The Good Woman of Sichuan, is in reference to the play “The Good Person of Szechwan” by Bertolt Brecht. The contextual setting of this play serves as the stage for the film; yet the quest of the “actress” is not to reenact, but to deliver a string of emotions, a journey of self-identification and recovery. Identity — be it female, ethnic or individual — is the final destination that this expedition is set to explore.
As a filmmaker, Zhao lives in constant transits between Chengdu, Abu Dhabi, and Toronto. In her practice, Zhao particularly tunes into this migrating experience across and within spaces. She likes to explore the “national” and “cross-national” narratives, through the grids of gender, diasporic and historical identities.
As the cinematographer for The Good Woman of Sichuan and being Zhao’s friend, I have kept the habit of calling her regularly on Wechat. We talk about everything — from personal life to academia critique, from aesthetic inspirations to social observations. For this interview, we had a more orientated discussion on her artistic practice, her experience at NYU Abu Dhabi, and her role as a female filmmaker in various environments.
1. Sabrina Zhao, The Good Woman of Sichuan, 2020. Images courtesy of Berlinale Forum.
“Any resemblance to the imagined or the dreamed is entirely coincidental.”
- Sabrina Zhao
2. Sabrina Zhao, The Good Woman of Sichuan, 2020. Unofficial poster. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sherry Wu: First, please introduce yourself – where did you grow up? What has led you to pursue art/filmmaking? & if there is anything else you’d like to share.
Sabrina Zhao: I grew up in Sichuan, and went to Abu Dhabi for university. My interests in art/filmmaking emerged in high school. But a more definite belief was born when I started reading John Berger’s texts. It was in a literature class at NYU Abu Dhabi; there was John Berger’s photobook A Seventh Man, and there was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. I began to see something new and different. And that’s when I felt the power of art/cinema, that it always inspires a yet unknown way of seeing.
I grew up in Sichuan, and went to Abu Dhabi for university.
S.W.: Then, let’s talk about The Good Woman of Sichuan. It seems that the film explores the concept of fluidity – could you please expand on that, especially in relation to your choices of imagery and framing?
S.Z.: I see this as a process driven film. I did not know what the film was until the editing was completed. But I have a feeling. In that way, none of the images was captured with a definite interpretation or meaning. In fact, each image was composed with us not knowing what it could mean. We approach each frame with curiosity and experimentation at that moment. I think that occupying ourselves with meaning or goal would deflect that precious possibility. We try to rid the old box that contains what we think we know, being it factual or conceptual, even with regards to the notion of fluidity. I don’t think about that question, nor do I try to find answers. But I was very aware of its presence in the process of exploring the unknown.
“The shifts here aren’t from woman to man, but between modes, formats and registers, like thoughts that scatter on waking, from stasis to movement, high definition to grain, words to wordlessness, noise to silence, fiction to documentary; the camera is reflected in the window of the train.”
- Words by Berlinale Forum
S.W.: Being a female artist, how does your experience differ in different environments?
S.Z.: I feel rather free in fact — being a woman. Every woman I meet is different and is mysterious to me as well. This mystery allows me to explore freely — it gives me more room to navigate myself. In Abu Dhabi especially so, because I feel the feminist movement or speech is less mainstream or dominant in Abu Dhabi than in North America. There is less movement, I guess. In that way, I feel there are oddly lots of grey areas to tap into without being restricted by a particular kind of discourse. The way I feel is that the discourses here are not fixed nor super loud. So I feel there could be a lot of voices, not necessarily contradicting each other, but overlapping each other — an oddly open space for multiplicity.
I feel there could be a lot of voices, not necessarily contradicting each other, but overlapping each other — an oddly open space for multiplicity.
3. Stills from Sabrina Zhao, The Good Woman of Sichuan, 2020. Images courtesy of the artist.
S.W.: You transit between Chengdu, Abu Dhabi, and Toronto – how has this migrating experience impacted your work?
S.Z.: In my work, I feel most strongly about showcasing the migrating experience. I show what it means to not be fixated by one place or two strikingly opposing places (East and West). I feel there’s more fluidity, beauty, and excitement in multiplicity. It’s not just about two places, but multiple places. Even in Abu Dhabi, it is not about the single city of Abu Dhabi but the multiplicity of voices, languages, and cultural origins that make up this city, with everyone coming in and out temporarily. I find it’s a very liberating experience. There is a sadness to certain parts of it, with the feeling of uprootedness. However, there is much more room for artistic exploration and experimentation as well. And this got me interested in the idea of REMIX: remixing everything, remixing cultures, times, and forms. It makes me see the world in a web that’s poetically connected, rather than a binary thinking of the subject and the object. I like this web feeling much more. It’s certainly much more unstable and unpredictable, but I’m fascinated by it.
This got me interested in the idea of REMIX: remixing everything, remixing cultures, times, and forms.
S.W.: Tell us what’s special about Leshan – the setting and shooting location for The Good Woman of Sichuan?
S.Z.: Nothing so special about it actually. It’s in Sichuan, and I wanted it to be in Sichuan, where I originally come from. But I don't want the location to be my hometown because it would be too familiar. I want something that’s a little strange but at the same time familiar; which is how I feel towards the notion of home. Or any place actually — there’s always something strange about it but at the same time something familiar. Well, if we are being honest, another thing about Leshan is that it has good food. So I thought we could at least have a good time together if we couldn’t make the film work.
S.W.: Let’s talk about NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) – how has it shaped your artistic career and vision?
SZ: My experience at NYUAD is transformative. It shapes everything and constantly shaping: my exploration of the arts, and my position in the world, as well as how I perceive the world, or how I approach art towards this world. It made me realize the beautiful complexity and interconnectedness of the world— the multiplicity of it. The fact that it stays away from the two opposing narratives that I grew up being surrounded by and overwhelmed with: East and West. That frees me immensely.
The fact that it stays away from the two opposing narratives that I grew up being surrounded by and overwhelmed with: East and West. That frees me immensely.
Sabrina (Ruobing) Zhao was born in Sichuan, and now lives between Chengdu, Abu Dhabi, and Toronto. Her films particularly tune into this migrating experience across and within spaces. She holds the Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University Abu Dhabi, with concentrations in Film & New Media and Literature & Creative Writing. Currently, she is pursuing the MFA studies in Film Production at York University. She likes to blend documentary, fiction and the experimental. The Good Woman of Sichuan is her first feature film.
Follow Sabrina Zhao on Instagram.
Visit Sabrina Zhao’s website.