Although the similarities between 1990s China and the Pine Ridge Native American reservation in South Dakota may not be immediately obvious, Chloe Zhao explains those parallels exist in her first feature, Songs My Brother Taught Me, which is screening in Directors Fortnight.  

“The young people on Pine Ridge remind me of my early years in China when the country first opened to the West,” says Beijing-born Zhao, who studied political science in Massachusetts and filmmaking at NYU.  

“They can be in the middle of the Badlands but also on Facebook and in touch with what young people are doing all over the world. They’re very confused and dealing with identity issues in a similar way I did as a teenager, when I didn’t quite believe what my country or family were telling me.”

Her film, which premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance and was picked up by Fortissimo Films, tells the story of a Native American teenage boy who is planning to leave the reservation when his father dies and he feels compelled to stay and look after his 13-year-old sister.  

Zhao spent 17 months over three years living on the reservation while she wrote her script. “I just turned up and started knocking on doors and everyone was very inviting – although I think it helped that I look like this,” Zhao says. “People just thought it was funny that a Chinese girl wanted to make a film about them.” 

After 30 drafts, Zhao eventually tossed away half her script to make something more deeply rooted in the real-life characters and events she encountered. She filmed with non-professional actors, using the grant money she had received from institutions including IFP and Film Independent. 

Ironically, she met an investor – Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi’s Significant Productions – just before she started filming. Afraid of losing her main characters, and the tiny shooting window available in the harsh climate of the plains, she went ahead without their investment, although they later financed post-production.  

Zhao says she is constantly asked why a Chinese woman wanted to make a film about Native Americans – but finds this less of a problem than people’s expectations that her film has to represent the entire culture.

“I think I offer an outsider perspective, but one film cannot be representative of Pine Ridge,” Zhao says. “If people leave the theatre and feel like they’ve gotten to know a couple of very diverse and complex individuals, then I’ll be happy.”