Looking at the power of Documentarian filming with Elizabeth Lo

Every filmmaker has a vision of how to manipulate a message or sign towards an audience. They act as a portal with a lens to showcase untouched stories across the world; especially within documentary films. There seems to be a dedication behind the eyes of these auteur's that I was keen to question, and uncover their strategy and background to creating one of the most emotionally successful genres on our screens. Elizabeth Lo is an award-winning nonfiction filmmaker whose interested in exploring the boundaries between species, class, and unequal states of personhood. With the recent premier of her first feature 'Stray', I spoke with her from Hong Kong about her journey to capture justice on our screen.

Some directors are searching for triggers to grab a story they can tell. However, studying film at university in New York, Elizabeth came across many themes that already intrigued her. One day she decided she wanted to make a film about zoo's, and why we take our children to gawk at animals. She told me,"In the course of making this very simple documentary in the Bronx, I discovered that 100 years ago they had housed a human, African pygmy, in the monkey house, and later, after he was released he committed suicide. That brought so many themes to me I was interested in, colonialism, speciesism and racism at the intersection. In making that film, I fell in love with documentary. I felt, if you dug deep into any phenomenon in the world, it can you lead to so many profound histories."

As she excelled in assisting on sets, I questioned Lo if she felt the gender split was even across crews she worked on, "Documentary is very welcoming to women, you're doing it very independently with small crews, sometimes just me. I really enjoyed that, not sure if that’s a factor of my personality (laughs)". It's clear the director developed her love for animal storytelling, filming Bisonhead and Last Stop in Santa Rose. But her fifth short film, The Last Disclosure President, was focused on a human subject. I asked her about the transition to one subject during that film, " It was a different kind of filming, about collaboration and planning things, rather than capturing what’s unfolding. I prefer this method as I’m less involved in the orchestration that occurs. I’m more reacting to what’s happening around me, rather than directing it."

No matter the subject, it's clear her movies compact a great deal of emotion from the in-depth camera work and textual facts behind the tales. Lo spoke to me about the recurring themes commenting, "It seems there is that pattern of harshness or bleakness emerging from my body of work. If you experience overlooked corners of the world, it reveals itself to be. My work is a celebration of life, especially with Stray. There is some positivity there, with the dogs being free and living life on their own terms, it's not just darkness, there is light."

As we go onto to discuss who inspired her, Lo talks about the gender behind the titles, "I don’t tend to focus on that, it’s difficult to make good films in general so I try to seek out the good work. Of course there are film makers like Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold who inspire me. But at the same time there is Viktor Kossakovsky and Spike Lee in the back of my mind to. I don’t tend to think about film making in a gendered sense because I think good filming is good film making."

Talking about the intimate scenes between her and Zeytin in her feature 'Stray' I asked the film maker what it was like to be so close to such a welcoming dog on the chaotic streets of Istanbul. She went on to say, "I feel very proud about having shot it myself, you tend to think of the DOP as a very male role. So I’m very happy that I was in control of the literal vision of the film. Zeytin was so inviting in front of the camera. It was a heavy set up but I felt strong enough, and when your mind is trying to keep up with the dogs, you forget about the physical pain."

As we finished off our call recommending pictures nearly 10,000 miles apart, of which Lo highlighted the masterpiece Gunda to be released later this year, I asked her if she thought about flying here after COVID-19 to film in the UK. She joyfully replied, "I would love to, there are alot of stories there. Alot of my upbringing, the films I watched were all from the UK so it would be very gratifying for me to film there."

Finishing our call I was elated to hear this insightful director was in the process of making her second feature title, but sadly couldn't provide much information. A true genius behind the camera, the world waits for her to uncover more truths.

Elizabeth Lo's website link


Written and interviewed by Emily Gunn