Undergraduate Jiaxun Cao will represent Duke Kunshan University on the international stage after her documentary “My Bamboo Teacher” was shortlisted for the world’s biggest student film festival.
The media and arts student spent many hours over several weeks filming bamboo artist Xiaozhou Ni immersed in his ancient craft and sharing his philosophy on finding your passion in life.
The resulting short film has been nominated in the documentary category of the Global University Film Awards, a ceremony held annually in Hong Kong to recognize the cinematic achievements of students across the world.
“This nomination was a really great piece of good news for me,” said Cao, from the Class of 2024, who is also known as Jessie.
“I was feeling under pressure at the time with another research project and it really gave me a lift.
“I was surprised and also very happy.”
Shot last fall in the Jiangsu town of Bacheng, “My Bamboo Teacher” raises important questions about the role of education and how people can unlock what really interests them.
Cao first met Ni during a visit, as part of a first-year social practice course, to a museum where his workshop is based. It was not until early in her sophomore year that the idea of making a film about him took hold, around the time she started taking Professor Kaley Clements’ sports documentary class.
Ni’s personal discovery more than 30 years ago of bamboo art, a nearly lost piece of Chinese culture, followed a period of self-exploration in which he dabbled in many different forms of artistic expression, including calligraphy and painting.
“As he was exploring traditional Chinese art he found his passion for bamboo art. He talked to me a lot about his self-exploration journey,” said Cao, who is from Chengdu in Sichuan province.
“His message is about encouraging students to investigate their interests in their own way across a very broad field, even if they might get lost along the way.
“If you follow a highly structured educational path you will probably know what your next steps are going to be but you could lose the chance to find out what you really have a passion for.”
She added, “Ni talks about art education but it applies to many other fields as well.”
It turned out those principles of self-exploration were applicable to Cao herself.
Making the film and engaging in the course made her realize her enthusiasm for a form of fieldwork in which researchers immerse themselves into the daily lives of the people they are studying.
“During those seven weeks I gradually found that ethnographic fieldwork is something that I’m really interested in,” she said.
“Making this documentary pushed me to see the beauty of interviewing, of ethnographic work, the process of getting to know people and eventually showcasing their thoughts in creative work. I really appreciated that chance.”
Cao plans to make more films in the future and will continue to apply what she has learned during Clements’ classes.
Based on those lessons and her own experiences she suggests there are key three elements for producing a good documentary: committing lots of time to getting to know the main characters, structuring a strong narrative and properly researching the subject.
“The more you get to know about the person you are about to portray, the better you are going to tell the story,” she said.
“Documentary-making is not simply taking a camera and documenting what happened.
“That’s just a really tiny part. What’s more important is how you structure the narrative, how you make your material work for the storytelling and the message delivery.”
The third edition of the Global University Film Awards will be held in November at Hong Kong Baptist University. More details here.