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Touch: An Indie Feature about A Western Woman in China

Fei Fei, a married Caucasian western woman living in a small town in China with her family, meets Bai Yu, a Chinese blind masseur, and the two are powerfully drawn to one another. Against all odds, they come together in an intense love affair -- a turning point in both their lives from which there is no return.

While Fei Fei tries to reconcile her attraction for Bai Yu, along with the stresses of her marriage to Zhang Hua, she pulls away from the affair. Unable to accept her betrayal of their connection, Bai Yu's willful independence takes over. He grows obsessive, possessive, possessed.

Finally, Fei Fei, Bai Yu, and Zhang Hua find that the demons they've created can only implode in a clash of mixed desires and violent impulses.

It is our pleaure at the Toronto Film Magazine to interview Aleksandra SZCZEPANOWSKA, a New York-based writer/director of numerous short films including LET IT RING, co-written and co-directed with Jean Luc Ormieres, which premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2013; and NAKED SOLES, also together with Ormieres, a mystery drama shot in Paris, sponsored by UniFrance, which won Best Short Film on Polish FilmWeb in 2012.

As an actor, Aleksandra has appeared off-Broadway and in productions directed by her long-time teacher, Tony-award winner Terry Schreiber. Previous to her work as a filmmaker and performer, Aleksandra worked in the fields of security, environment and energy in Africa, China, Europe and the US. She holds a BA in Political Science from Columbia College and an MA in International Affairs specializing in Energy Management and Marine Transportation from Columbia University. She is conversational in Mandarin Chinese, Polish, French and English.

What was the inspiration behind the making of Touch?

The inspiration was multi-fold, and all the elements came together at the same time. First, I had always wanted to write about an experience with China’s blind masseurs since I had had a fascinating encounter when I was a student in Beijing more than 20 years ago. The idea reemerged when I went back to Beijing around 6 years ago with my family. I had an unpleasant, dangerous experience with a regular masseur, and realized that there was something to write about. There was a new kind of Chinese male aggression that I wanted to explore. Independently, I had had numerous conversations where my Chinese male friends very much wanted to depict Chinese male aggression toward a Western woman on screen. Why? Why this? I did some research. And there is a wealth of information to answer the why. This is how the thriller element of the film came about. Furthermore, I was warned that with the new regime in China it would be increasingly difficult for me, as a westerner, to make a film in China (not even knowing yet the trade war that would come with Trump). I would not be able to make this film two month later than I did. It would have been impossible. I was working in the very last window.

How did you start making films and what was the first film project you created? 

I started making films out of necessity. I was an actor who didn’t have access to good material. So, I wrote my own. I’m a very visual writer, so I could not imagine handing over my script to someone else. I had to see the story through by directing. I wrote my first feature screenplay after my brother passed away. I went to Tribeca film festival to attend some producer panels to see how I could get it made, and it got the attention of a French producer. I never made that film, but he became my mentor with whom I wrote and directed my first shorts. One month after meeting we had a three-minute short in the can. He taught me everything I know.

What were some of the challenges of making Touch as a director? 

The greatest challenge in directing Touch was that I wanted to achieve a certain look but didn’t really have enough funds. I won’t spoil it and tell you how we did what we did! Except that, the final murder scene was difficult technically and required more experienced crew and props than I could afford. So, we rehearsed beforehand and improvised largely on set. The second challenge was that every aspect of filmmaking is different in China than the rest of the world, from the fact that in China they don’t use a shot list (a blueprint for making the film), and the director doesn’t have access to the actors (this is left to the assistant director and casting director), to the fact that there are no rest days. I did make and use a shot list and I did direct my own actors, but I did not take days off. There were many other issues, too many to list. Each one making my task as a director more daunting than the next. I was also sensitive to the fact that I did not want to go in with an attitude that the western way is better. So, where I could go the Chinese way, I did.

How did you fund the film and how did the film go into production? Tell us about how you finalized your casting and crew as well. 

I privately funded the film and those funds went through my US production company. The screenplay passed Chinese censorship after quite a few changes and months of efforts. I worked in English and had the script translated. Every change required a new translation. When I suddenly got a green light to shoot, I crewed and cast in two weeks in order to catch the late summer window.

Where do you see the future of female directors in cinema and why is it important to have the perspective of female directors in world cinema? 

The future is bright indeed. Europe is far ahead of North America, who is ahead of the rest of the world. It is just a matter of time that everyone catches up. With the economics of cinema anyone can make a film and should. We need to hear underrepresented voices, not just from women, but from indigenous and black filmmakers, among others. There are many stories to share which will help with our understanding of the world and our fellow human beings. By understanding someone else’s journey, we can be more empathetic, which in turn creates a more peaceful and integrated society. Human progress. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Which genre is your most favorite genre to work on? Why?

I do love thrillers. They scare me so much. I am even scared watching and writing them. And with directing, I love working on the technical aspects of thrillers such as the beats and audience expectations. The moodiness of lighting, set design, playing with different camera angles to achieve a scare. I’m dying to use the Hitchcock dolly zoom. Just can’t wait.

What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?

I don’t really like discussing my work until I am finished. So, stay tuned.

How can cinema and films have an impact on society and change the world? 

Of all the art forms, cinema and music are the most popular. But I personally believe cinema can immerse a person more fully into story. I think in the end, if there is more understanding among people of different genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, and cultures then there can be more empathy and cooperation, ultimately more peace.

Why do you want to make films and what gives you satisfaction to work on creative projects in media? 

I love that film can reach anyone anywhere. Someone on a laptop in India or the Arctic can watch the same film. I love how it brings us all together in a collective global experience. The satisfaction comes when I am able to move someone to tears or laughter or they have fun with a good thrill, but most important, when I bring a new experience to them that makes them think differently, if only for a moment, but maybe for a lifetime.

Please name three of your most favorite filmmakers who have been influential to your work and please tell us the reason for being inspired by their work. 

Wong Kar-wai is able to capture a mood with light and colors in a glorious way. Asghar Farhadi can capture complicated human emotions with elegant simplicity. And Federico Fellini has impressive camerawork that makes me feel, together with his camera, like I am part of a ballet.

Watch the trailer of Touch:


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