Zhe Song: Editing the Immigrant Journey
It sometimes seems that humans will never learn that war is something which only yields negative results for both sides of the equation. This seemingly obvious facet requires an explanation for every new generation and new war. In 2020, there is no better presentation of this than the film Qafas. Director Dayna Li’s special ingredient for manifesting the anguish of one family in war riddled Aleppo was editor Zhe Song. One need look no further for proof of his masterful editing than the knowledge that neither Zhe nor the director speaks Arabic, the language spoken in Qafas. The ability of Zhe Song to immerse the audience within this chaotic and panicked environment is not reliant upon exposition but rather on his insight into the perspectives and emotions of the characters. An Official Selection of the Austin Film Festival, Woods Hole Film Festival, Skyline Indie Film Festival, and others, Qafas has already yielded wins from the Austin Film Festival and Nassau Film Festival, while Zhe won in the Best Editing category at the New York Film Awards and is a Quarter Finalist for Best Editing at the Los Angeles Film Awards. Qafas depicts a very human side of modern day Syria. Zhe’s work on the documentary Born in America presents a very different aspect of the modern day immigrant experience but none less riveting.
It has been said that there are as many different immigrant stories as there are immigrants themselves. What this notion seeks to state is the individuality of the immigrant experience. What is so unique about Qafas as compared to most films of this subject matter is that this story depicts the situation which leads to a family’s decision to become immigrants. Omar and Samir are two brothers who have grown of age in Aleppo surrounded by war. Their parents Amira and Nabil love their children as all parents do and desperately want them to have a chance at a future surrounded by love and safety. While so many Western films present people from this part of the world in a negative light, Qafas rejects this and presents the love and connection of a family rather than a stereotype. As editor and colorist of Qafas, Zhe confirms that there was nothing typical about the film from the outset. The language of the film is Arabic, a language which Zhe Song does not speak. He credits the actor’s performances, mood, and body gestures for informing him far more than any dialogue. Zhe’s preference for long take shaky camera movement to create a chaotic feeling instead of a fast cut as well as extended shots to support the authenticity of action scenes displays his desire to establish a unique pace for Qafas. He describes, “In general,I usually would choose to emphasize the protagonist’s mental journey and develop the antagonist’s power. When conflicts occur, the impact on the audience could be strong and effective. When the character is experiencing a difficult time, or complicated inner thoughts situation, the shot usually tends to be longer. When the character is in a rush or a happy mood, it could be faster. But overall, there’s a motivation for the cut.” Also the colorist for this film, Zhe’s use of yellows and oranges adds a visual disturbance and increase tension for the audience.
A far different immigrant experience is seen in the documentary Born in America. As the editor of this film, Zhe had to sculpt a story that would inform the viewer of the complexity of the situation as wells as the emotional torrent which accompanies it. Told through a Chinese family who travels to California to birth a child who will then inherit U.S. citizenship, Born in America faces the legality or illegality of this scenario, depending on your political leanings. Segmented into three perspectives (the parents, the legal experts, and the politicians who establish the laws), the seamless intertwining of emotional interviews juxtaposed with the stoicism of academia and stock footage of governmental response is an impressive display of editing prowess which highlights the chasm that separates so many concerning immigration. In Zhe Song’s opinion, being a filmmaker is about connection. He informs, “I think that’s a very good starting point for a filmmaker to personally understand what the characters in the film are facing and experiencing. It helps me to find the critical moment precisely and fast. If I want the audience to feel connected and touched, I need to be very clear about the core of emotional connection.”