One of the fastest expanding segments of the production/entertainment world is documentaries. They carry a different tone than feature films. The production value of documentaries has grown immensely in the past few years. Filmmakers understand that there is an increasingly sizeable and appreciative audience for this genre and they expect a quality of presentation as high as in box office films. Zhen Li produced “Dream Road” for CCTV and enlisted DP Eva Ye to create the stunning visuals he required. Ye’s work on such award-winning and praised films as Shen, Warm Smooth Mean, and others vetted her as a cinematographer of exception talent and artistic vision. Sara Joe, director of “Cuddling with Strangers”, had the same desire when approaching Eva to work on her documentary about professional cuddlers. These two productions could not be more different yet they both required Eva Ye’s expert eye to communicate their ideas with a visual tone that matched their message. Both contain a message of bringing people together for their betterment, but in vastly different circumstances.
Traditionally, documentary film crews are smaller than on feature films. This requires a great deal of each member of the filming crew. What was so important for Eva’s role as DP of “Dream Road” was that she not only brought her cinematographer’s eye but the fact that she brought a Chinese and American perspective to it. Her time in both countries allowed her to see and communicate both perspectives for this documentary whose sole focus was on the relationship of these two powers. Producer Zhen Li professes, “As the segment director of photography, Eva acted not only as the creative backbone in constructing great imageries and truthful documentations, but she was also the bridge translating the American culture and atmosphere into something that Chinese audiences could see and understand. Eva's work is a presentation of a tremendous amount of intuition, quick thinking, spontaneity, and very sharp eyes. She greatly increased the substance of the film. “Dream Road” has enjoyed exceptional praise and commercial success in China, with many complimenting the dynamism and beauty of the scenes filmed in America."
Ye’s work on “Dream Road” covered such topics as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, which was the beginning of this modern day relationship, and China’s involvement with major developed countries. Images often make the most profound impact of any communication. Ye understands this approach and invokes it with expert ability during a number of visual moments in this documentary series. A melding of the two cultures was clearly evident in Muscatine, Iowa. The production interviewed a resident who had hosted (current president of China) Xi Jingping during the 70s when he was visiting Muscatine as a scholar. The two story Victorian mansion in the middle of a small Iowan town, displays many hints of Chinese cultural footprints through décor and furniture arrangements. Ye made sure that the combination of Eastern and Western style was shown in the footage. She notes, “It really amazed me that an elder lady, living in Muscatine, knew so much about China and had so much appreciation and understanding about its political leader. I suggested that she wear something red, the symbolic color of China, and she gladly agreed. Her presence, paired with the right amount of back lighting on her silver hair in the final video was both stunning and refreshing to see. I’m a firm believer that images are the most direct and effective medium of information when I’m not physically present. They raise more curiosity than words, are more easily understood, and they can incorporate deeper meaning.” Revealing her aspirations for “Dream Road” and the two cultures she notes, “I still hope that people from these two cultures can look deeper into each other, to see that what’s underneath the epitome of the pop culture is centuries of immigrants fighting for freedom for themselves and their families; a big melting pot of many different cultures. What’s behind the highly censored, contained, powerful society is over 5000 years of rich history where its ancestors who also fought hard for their freedom.”
Where “Dream Road” depicts two cultures to hundreds of millions of people, “Cuddling with Strangers” deals with one on one intimate interaction. Whether on a grand scale or the most minute one possible, it seems that there is always an uncomfortable aspect to people relating to each other. “Cuddling with Strangers” tells the story of professional cuddlers. The very idea implies awkwardness to most who hear the concept. It was Ye’s role to show the actions and allow viewers to see firsthand what the concept is and how it feels to both involved parties; the “cuddler” and the “cudlee.” When director Sara Joe Wolansky approached Eva about being involved, she introduced the idea of filming at a cuddling party. Ye admits to trepidation and interest as she recalls, “A cuddle party was a weird concept for me, or for any of us. It was also Sara Joe’s first time interacting with such groups. She and I talked about how to cover the party, who to focus on, and not to be intrusive. One thing was clear, there was going to be a lot of handheld [camera work] and moving among people. At the beginning I was struggling to capture one single person perfectly when they spoke, because it was like a big group meeting where everyone talked freely. Eventually I decided it was perhaps more important to capture wide shots of the group instead of focusing on one single person at a time. Because the experience was so unique, a group scene was what differentiated it from anything we’ve seen before.” Eva concedes that part of the enjoyment of being involved in documentary films is that, in contrast to more traditional productions, she often has new and challenging experiences while working on these productions. Growth is a guaranteed product of conflict.
Most productions call for full lighting and wide sweeping scenes. “Cuddling with Strangers” required the inverse of this and most commonly accepted methods for a cinematographer. Because the subjects were mostly cuddling with their eyes closed, a calm and soothing environment with the lowest possible lighting and minimal instrumentation was necessary. One of the most intriguing scenes occurs when Wolansky agrees to be filmed in a cuddle session. Eva remarks, “When Sara Joe was doing the private cuddling session with Steve, it was particularly challenging because the session went on for hours and I wouldn’t receive any verbal cues from her as the director. I was on my own and handholding the camera for the entirety of the session. The good thing was that they were lying down together on a mattress; therefore, I could sit on the floor with them, resting my elbows on my legs or knees to keep strength.”
“Cuddling with Strangers” confronts both filmmakers and audiences with a paradoxical situation. Our intrinsic need for physical interaction (even of a nonsexual nature) is clear, yet to allow others to engage in this and be viewed seems counterintuitive to the very comfort it provides. The fact that both goals were achieved in producing this documentary is an incredible achievement. Viewing the story is both tension building and releasing, an unusually rewarding experience. While many of us think of documentary filmmakers as those who want to educate the audience, Eva reveals that she was learning alongside us. She states, “This world of people who long for physical touch…I came to realize how important that was. It made me think about the way people interact nowadays and why they act certain ways. It helped me reevaluate a lot of social stigma of what’s considered weird while being perhaps the most natural need a human being has. The thinking that came after my participation in this subject matter was very meaningful to me.” Audiences obviously agreed with her. “Cuddling with Strangers” achievements include: Best Short - American Documentary Film Festival (2016), Best Editing - Women’s Independent Film Festival (2016), & Best Story Concept - Womens’ Independent Film Festival (2016).
The recognition that “Cuddling with Strangers” and “Dream Road” both received are signs that the public is constantly curious about the way the people interact and relate to each other, whether it be on a cultural or individual dynamic. The way in which these stories are presented helps to foster this interest, driven to new heights by the visuals which cinematographer Eva Ye creates for them.