Illuminating lives through documentary: The inspiring journey of Xuetao Liu

30 May 2024

In a softly-lit room in Shanghai, an elderly lady sits quietly, holding a photo in her hand. Her eyes drift between the captured moment and “the stranger” beside her.

The stranger visits her once every two weeks. Her voice is gentle, and her words are comforting. At first, she came with a camera in hand, but later, she came without it. Nevertheless, without fail, she always arrived on time.

The stranger is Xuetao Liu, a Year Four BA Filmmaking student from China at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU). During her undergraduate studies, Liu has devoted her time to shedding light on the lives of marginalised groups through documentaries. Her subjects range from Alzheimer’s patients, visually impaired peple, and elderly people in rural China.

Xuetao Liu

A passion ignited

Liu’s journey into the world of documentary began with a passion for storytelling and social advocacy.

“I’ve always had a message to convey, a story to tell,” she says. “When I entered the university, I kept asking myself: Who do I want to become? What do I want to do? What do I want to change?”

These inquiries led her to opt for a programme in filmmaking.

“For me, movies are not just a tool for expressing viewpoints; they possess a communicative power that goes beyond words and directly touches the hearts of people,” she says.

However, as Liu delved deeper into the courses, she gradually discovered her shortcomings: her scriptwriting appeared immature, and at times, it would even make reviewers of her work chuckle. What troubled her even more was the feeling of being lost when faced with high-tech equipment such as cameras, lighting, and recording devices.

Just as Liu was about to lose confidence, she encountered Kaisi Wang, Assistant Professor of Practice at XJTLU’s School of Film and TV Arts.

Kaisi Wang (left) and Xuetao Liu (right)

Wang encouraged her to try documentary making. Under her guidance, Liu realised that documentaries emphasise authenticity and emotional expression, without relying on complex filming techniques and high-tech equipment. This approach allowed her to combine creative talents with compassionate spirit.

Giving a voice to the unheard

In Year Two, Liu and her friends participated for the first time in “Researching China”, a public welfare project that aims to cultivate youth leadership. It provides funding and professional training to university students for field research and social advocacy. The organiser, South Reviews (Nan Feng Chuang), is a magazine that focuses on the development of transformations of Chinese society.

As a member of the team, Liu interviewed elderly people of different genders about care practice to see the differences in response. Together, she and her team members interviewed 165 elderly people in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province.

Pictures taken by Liu during her research in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province

Apart from this project, Liu also visited some nursing homes and interviewed some elderly people on her own. Some of the interviewees are visually impaired, and this made her aware of the challenges they would encounter in daily life.

 Xuetao Liu (right) with her team members (first and third from left) and interviewees

“Visual impairment is far more common than we think. The reports by China Disabled Persons’ Federation show that there are more than 17 million visually impaired people in China. This means that about one in 80 people is visually impaired in this country,” she says.

In Year Three, Liu decided to participate in “Researching China” as a team leader. This time, she brought this overlooked community to the forefront through her lens. She wanted to capture their challenges and resilience, and to promote inclusivity in society.

In Liu’s documentary, a visually impaired girl is reading a book

To ensure the quality of her documentaries, Liu immersed herself in extensive research.

“I studied different types of visual impairments, from low vision to blindness. I made an effort to stay updated with news and government policies related to their experiences. I learned the factors that may cause visual impairment. I also learned how to interact with them appropriately, such as how to properly guide them, and how to assist them,” she says.

Liu and the team interviewed more than 40 visually impaired individuals to gain a thorough understanding of their struggles, hopes, and dreams. Finally, Liu and her team won the first prize of “Researching China” that year.

Liu (right) and her teammate receive awards on stage

“What they need is respect, not empathy. I prepared myself for a long time before each interview, because it’s difficult for us as observers not to pity them or carry certain biases. And I have to overcome those. If I cannot assure myself that I will treat them as equals, I won’t proceed with the interview,” she says.

Liu approached her documentary with great sensitivity and respect, allowing the individuals to share their stories in their own voices. Her documentary enabled viewers to connect on a deeper level.

“Through documentary filmmaking, I have also fulfilled my initial dream – using visuals to speak out and convey thoughts and emotions from within,” she says.

Making a difference

In addition to her academic studies and documentary projects, Liu also dedicated her time to help those in need. Her volunteer work not only provided immediate assistance but also inspired others to join the cause.

In January 2020, she joined an online organisation and gradually became a core member, assisting more than 100 hospitals in Hubei province with medical supplies. In July 2021, she formed a volunteer team of over a thousand people and helped transport supplies to flood-affected areas in Henan province. In March 2022, she and her friends initiated a campaign and collected over 70 boxes of supplies to send to places in need after the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The thank you letters received by Xuetao Liu’s team during the pandemic

Reflecting on these experiences and her university life, Liu says XJTLU and her professors at the School of Film and TV Arts have been very supportive.

“I know I’m not a typical good student because my grades are not very high, but the teachers have been really kind to me, and they recognise my social responsibilities,” she says.

“Studying at XJTLU has been a very happy experience. I think the University truly respects the students. It gives us freedom and allows us to be whoever we want to be.”

Speaking of future plans, Liu will pursue a Master of Journalism, Documentary Filmmaking Specialisation at the University of Hong Kong.

She says she will continue her social responsibility no matter where she is.

“I want to make a positive difference in the world we live in, and to show people that Gen Z are not snowflakes,” she says.

By Xinmin Han
Edited by Tamara Kaup
Photos courtesy of Xuetao Liu

30 May 2024


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