Avant-grade Director Shanshan Zhang: Draw Complex Nature of the Times with Films

September 8 2023 at 2:00 PM, the experimental short film The Foam directed by Shanshan Zhang was officially selected in the Silicon Beach Film Festival and screened at the TCL Chinese Theaters in Hollywood. Just three years ago, her other film Paradise Program was also screened at the same theater.

The Foam is an experimental short film with a strong sense of formality, in which Director Shanshan Zhang ingeniously uses images, space, sound, and actions to create a huge metaphorical space between the foam heads and the characters. With only a few minutes, the film is filled with anxious thoughts, profound life experiences as well as a series of penetrating questions about the entire human relationship, love, and death. From the creation of her film, we can see that her vision and form have been constantly expanding by integrating the installation art and the performance art, so as to explore both the documentary nature of film narration and the abstract art that can be drawn upon, and the theme has also been greatly expanded. As a Chinese filmmaker of the new generation with outstanding artistic ability she has been highly recognized by experts in the field of film worldwide.


The Foam film still


The Foam film still

The Foam: Intimacy is a way to confront mortality

For Zhang Shanshan, The Foam makes an important step in her experimental film exploration. Her explorations have indeed been constantly recognized: She has received an Honorable Mention at the 15th SHORT to the Point in Romania and was Official Selected in the 8th Silicon Beach Film Festival, the 10th Best Short Competition, and the 14th Pune Short Film Festival. In the field of short films, all the aforesaid honors are of great value for most filmmakers. At Silicon Beach which used to be located by many famous companies such as YouTube, Google, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Amazon, the film festival founded by Jon Gursha and Peter Green has become a cutting-edge cinema trend indicator. As one of the “avant-garde” film festivals in the United States, the Best Short Competition submitted films from 72 countries, including feature films, documentaries, experimental films, music videos, etc. The SHORT to the Point Film Festival in Romania is dedicated to the distribution and dissemination of various short films around the world. The Pune Short Film Festival in India, one of the most noteworthy and valuable short film festivals in Asia, is an innovative international short film festival that invites aspiring and upcoming independent filmmakers with the purpose of creating opportunities for global filmmakers.

The film has not only been recognized at the film festivals but also exhibited in the galleries. After being premiered in New York City and China, the film joined the Art on Loop Europe touring exhibition organized by The Holy Art Gallery this summer in Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels. Also exhibited in London at the Mix Identities hosted by Itsliquid. The 33rd Onion City Experimental Film Festival organizer invited Shanshan Zhang to serve on the 2023 screening committee after watching this film.


Onion City Experimental Film festival screening Committee working process

The Foam is regarded as an extension of director Zhang Shanshan’s theme of “love and mortality”. “I believe that intimacy is not only a way to fight against loneliness but also a way to fight against mortality.” As she said, In the process of an intimate relationship fading away, the ultimate questions of loneliness and death resurface in one’s consciousness, becoming the initial state that an individual must confront. The ideas generated during such a transformation are not only about the relationship between two people but also about the reconstruction of reality and illusion as well as all possibilities. Meanwhile, the film also visualizes the spiritual unity and confrontation between two people in an intimate relationship through symbolic language. This short film has both a profound theme and a contemporary style full of unexpected details and surprises. Deepen the power of women’s unique sensibility to create an overflowing tension. The two female protagonists in the film have become another symbol. It’s not only a myth as well as the depth and connection between people, but also an inseparable love. There is another pair of protagonists in the film– nothingness and eternity, which are always around forever.


The Foam film still


The Foam film still

Path: From China to the U.S., seeking creation out of changes

“I started my journey of arts in China. During my undergraduate studies, I delved into the traditional film screenwriting, filming techniques, and post-production processes, so as to explore a variety of themes.” After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Television Editing and directing at the Communication University of China, Nanjing in 2014, Shanshan Zhang continued her studies in the United States and started to systematically study experimental films. In 2019, Shanshan Zhang received a master’s degree in Filmmaking at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She moved to New York City after graduation, inspired and expanded her creative horizons with contemporary art. Since then, she has combined video art, installation art, performance art, and space art with higher artistic effects and the expansion of more possibilities for films.


Paradise Program post production

On April 10, 2019, Paradise Program, a narrative sci-fi short film directed by Zhang Shanshan, premiered at the Parkway Theatre in Baltimore, MD. The film creates a near-future world to explore the serious theme in a romantic way through cutting-edge brain-computer technology. This film received 10 nominations at different film festivals around the world and won many awards, such as Best Sci-Fi Short Film/Female Director Honorable Mention/Best Lead Actor/Best Art Direction/Editing Honorable Mention/Best Production in South Film and Arts Academy Festival, Chile and the Best Short Film/Best LGBTQ Film in Platonic Film Competition, India. The short film has also been screened on the East and West coasts of the United States and in Rome and exhibited in Amsterdam, Paris, and Brussels this summer. During her creation of Paradise Program, Shanshan Zhang realized for the first time that whether as a filmmaker or an artist, artwork carries significant societal responsibility not just as a self-expression. Art should be presented in a more diverse and warmer manner. Combination with the humanistic discipline and cutting-edge science and technology. Meanwhile, the artwork should not only present and criticize the current situation, but also focus on the future.


Paradise Program Premiere

As a matter of fact, beyond the films Paradise Program and The Foam, she also tried to seek innovation through changes from different angles in her journey, including her experimental short film, NYC Dream. She created this film within six months, shouldered her social responsibility as a filmmaker, and reflected upon the particularity and humanistic care of global challenges against the pandemic in 2020. In addition, her poetic short film Routine, documentary Snail, narrative short film Tutti, and the film Synthetic Lovers in which she served as director of photography, the poetic short film 11565 Kilometers in which she served as the colorist, and the comedy short film Beard Balm in which she served as the Gaffer, all have brought great surprise to the whole industry.

It is worth mentioning that she joined the charity for autistic children in 2012 so as to have an in-depth understanding of such a special group of kids and their families, therefore she produced the documentary Snail and the narrative short film Fish in the Tank, which have been highly recognized and praised by the autism community and professional filmmakers.


Snail film still

Snail film still


Fish in the Tank film still


Fish in the Tank film still

Since then, she has been dedicated to supporting autistic children. Last year, she collaborated with John Qu, a director in Los Angeles, to produce the short documentary Music Calling. The film premiered in Los Angeles, California, and received Congressional Recognition by the United States Congresswoman Judy Chu for her “high standards of excellence and outstanding achievements and unwavering dedication to supporting autistic children and their families”. At present, director Zhang will continue to work with director John Qu to produce 10 documentary series about the growth of autistic children in the future.


Music calling film still


Music calling film still

Signature: The artistic spirit and characteristics of her own

From Shanshan Z’s works, it is evident that she is someone who enjoys challenging the peaks and has never been confined to one type of film. All her films have always started from scratch with new experiences and creations so that she can therefore accumulate experience and absorb various artistic nutrients.

It is praiseworthy that her explorations and trials in different film categories have outlined the complex contemporary nature of films. Her creative process is an ever-evolving journey, with themes often carrying a certain weight, yet there is always something light and postmodern in nature within, bringing about a meaningful transformation. We can easily find that she is good at altering heavy and rigid aspects within deeply meaningful films, making them more profound and intriguing.

“I keep experiencing separation during my growing process which has brought me some strong feelings. In the Eastern and Western cultures, people have different understandings and discussions of death, and fight against the physical and spiritual demise of mortality in different ways, which therefore became the priority theme of my works and the reason why I chose sci-fi as the main narrative type of my films.” She firmly believes that art should transcend the times to provide responses and possibilities to the physical and spiritual problems faced by people in the modern age.


Shanshan Zhang at work

During the pandemic and city shutdown, Shanshan Zhang deeply felt the close relationship between people and the environment as well as the city. She kept reflecting upon the relationship between all the living people and the space, group memory and shared perception. She thus came up with a secondary theme to explore the films and it was just what she hoped to express in her latest installation named It Is the Time You Have Wasted On Your Rose That Makes Your Rose So Important.

Over the past decade of creation, Shanshan Zhang has endeavored to broaden the presentation of moving image and transform from traditional narrative films to multi-media. She intended to make use of the interaction between materials and images in different spaces to explore the distance between the image and the audience through different ways of presentation. She also tries more materials from more viewing angles to create space for the moving image, so that the audience can become part of the work for better perception instead of being only standers-by, which can further expand the possibilities of the audience’s sense of participation.


Paradise Program film set


Paradise Program film set

Despite a lot of achievements and recognition nowadays, she has just embarked on a long journey. It’s believed that her extraordinary talents will be fully displayed during her future development and she will become more determined to develop along the journey as a filmmaker and artist.

Journalist: Wang Peng


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