Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Jennifer Ngo – “Faceless”

Jennifer Ngo is an award-winning journalist who believes that true stories will always matter. For over five years, she wrote for the South China Morning Post, where her reporting earned her a Human Rights Press Award. Ngo has also been part of the BBC’s investigative documentary team exposing mass-internment camps in Xinjiang. She is part of the Migration Collective in London, organizing the annual London Migration Film Festival since 2018. Ngo is a first-time director.

“Faceless” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

JN: “Faceless” is an intimate portrayal of four young people during an incredibly important time in Hong Kong. It goes beyond what you see in the news, into the heads and hearts of the people involved in the pro-democratic movement in 2019.

“Faceless” looks at why people do what they do and the prices they have to pay to stand up for what they believe in.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JN: I am a Hongkonger, born and raised. The 2019 pro-democratic movement is the single most participated event in the city, with reportedly two million people taking to the streets at one point. The movement was widely covered by international media, but I longed to tell the story from a local’s perspective.

As a Hongkonger, I feel it’s also my responsibility to document the stories on the ground. I want to make sure that the people’s voices are remembered and heard, that their perspectives aren’t lost.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

JN: I want people to google Hong Kong and the protests, to find out for themselves what happened. Our film only documented some perspectives, but there is so much more we could not tell.

I also hope the film will inspire people to think about their own communities, about what they think is worth fighting for.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JN: Everything was a challenge! As a first-time filmmaker, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JN: We started with private investors. Then the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund team connected us with XTR, which came in when we were in post-production with funds that enabled us to finish the film.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

JN: I never set out to be a filmmaker. When this story happened, my producer, Lorraine, pushed me and said, “We should make a film.” With our local roots and connections, we were in a unique place to tell 2019’s top news story differently. Somehow, both of us jumped in with both legs, and it went from there.

In hindsight, would I make the same decision? I am not sure, given how challenging filmmaking is. But I am extremely glad I did. There are — and also will be — many more films on the Hong Kong protests. There are so many ways of telling a story, but I also believe that our perspective is important.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

JN: The best training, I would say, is to write things up: risk assessments, character notes, security checklist, archive list. Write it up and start early. These write-ups will help you think more clearly and plan things better.

The worst misconception is how the industry may make you think you have to do things a certain way: that you must shoot your film a certain way, get funded a certain way, or collaborate with certain people to be considered “successful.” I think there are many ways of making powerful and incredible films, so don’t let those established norms box you in.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

JN: Trust your instincts when you cut your film. People might tell you to do things differently, but trust yourself. When you need advice, seek out other women filmmakers, producers, and executives. There are many amazing male directors out there with amazing work, but not enough female filmmakers presenting our voices. We need those perspectives, so trust that yours is important to be told.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JN: I don’t have one favorite! But I would say that Nanfu Wang’s “In The Same Breath” about COVID-19 in China — which premiered at Sundance this year — is a spectacular film, and one of the best I’ve watched recently. I don’t know how she managed to pull off a whole film when there was so much she couldn’t shoot herself, or even direct the shoots.

It’s a raw and honest film that tells the human stories behind a big news story. It also makes us all reflect on our actions — us as individuals, but also collectively.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

JN: I’ve been busy finishing “Faceless.” With the pandemic, a lot of things have to be done remotely, so it takes more time to get tasks done.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

JN: I am new to the film world, so my understanding of the inner workings of the industry is perfunctory. But I can speak to the wider media landscape — which is still a ways behind when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

I believe that change starts with admitting the wrongs. Companies need to admit that they have been sidelining people of color, that there is systemic racism and those in decision-making positions need to acknowledge that they have been part of the problem. Let’s start there. Admit the wrongs, apologize to the community. Then we can start the conversation of how to change. Invite people of color into those decision-making positions to draft policies that will make things more equal.

On a more practical level, encourage projects where locals are telling their own stories. Journalism, for example, has a long history of parachuting white male journalists into “exotic places” to report on what’s going on. That era should end. These places aren’t “exotic places,” they are complex communities and homes, of importance in a globalized world.

There are enough people from places like Hong Kong, China, Japan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Mexico, the Philippines who have great reporting and writing skills and can tell those stories. Fund projects made by the people who actually know about those stories.

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