Yingying Zhang came to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2017 with big dreams and aspirations. But within weeks of arriving on campus, the visiting Chinese PhD student went missing.
Zhang was last seen on June 9, 2017, getting into a car that belonged to Brendt Christensen, a former PhD student who two years later confessed to kidnapping and murdering her. The two did not previously know each other. The news made headlines in the U.S. and around the world and caused a shakeup in the Chinese international student community both at the university and abroad.
At the time, Northwestern University journalism graduate student Jiayan “Jenny” Shi felt like two important stories were missing from the headlines: who Zhang was, and her family’s journey in seeking answers around her disappearance and death.
Shi ended up spending the next few years developing a close relationship with Zhang’s family and filming their story. She joined Reset to talk about the process of making the documentary “Finding Yingying.”
Finding Yingying premieres at virtual theaters across the U.S. on Friday.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why did you want to tell this story?
Jenny Shi: When Yingying went missing in the summer of 2017, I was still a student at Northwestern University. The fact that she was a Chinese international student — and I later found out she actually went to the same university in China as me — really stuck with me, and I wanted to figure out what happened to her. After Yingying’s family arrived in the U.S., I went to visit them and worked as a volunteer helping search for Yingying. The more time I spent with them, the more I realized how amazing Yingying was. And I felt that her story and her family’s story got really lost in the media because everything was focused on the crime and investigation.
Who was Yingying to her family and friends?
Yingying was the center of her family. She was a strong bond that pulled the family together. There were some conflicts between her parents and also between her parents and brother, but she was always so mature and always so caring and thinking about her family.
To her friends, she was also a very amazing person who always had a smile on her face. She would send postcards with birthday greetings and wishes to all of her friends. In the film we actually showed a lot of her handwriting, not only her diaries, but also her postcards. So you can really see her personality in her writing.
Yingying’s writing is featured prominently in the film. Why did you decide to include her diaries?
We didn’t know about the existence of the diaries until two months after Yingying disappeared. At a press conference where they were giving an update on the recent events, Yingying’s boyfriend, Xiaolin, read the last line of her last diary entry that she wrote before she disappeared. That was, “Life is too short to be ordinary.”
Before that, all I had learned about Yingying was basically through her friends and colleagues. But it was totally different when I first saw her diaries. Even though she was ambitious and determined about what she wanted to achieve in the U.S., you really saw her vulnerability.
For me, that’s something I also had when I came here as an international student. So that gave me the idea of using the diary as a very important element of the film throughout the film to bring her to life.
In the film, you read several of Yingying’s diary entries aloud and even draw parallels between her life and your own. What was it like to be part of the documentary in this way?
As someone kind of having a parallel experience as an international student just like Yingying, I felt it was very important to include my perspective in the film. At first I was thinking, “I’m just going to document everything.” But later on, I just wasn’t able to separate my role as a filmmaker and also as a family friend and a volunteer. There were a lot of details and also very intimate conversations that the family would only have with me individually. That’s why I decided to have me read her diary and also put my own experience and feelings into the film.
The film includes some really personal looks into the family’s journey — from moments of sorrow and hope to tension building within the family. How did you navigate the emotional and ethical boundaries of making this documentary?
That was really challenging for me as a first-time filmmaker. I started this project when I was still in school, so I had a lot of questions about all the ethical dilemmas. I’ve been questioning myself all the time whether I’m exploiting my relationship with the family by filming probably the worst moments in their life.
At first, around 70% of the time we spent with the family was without a camera because we just really wanted to show our respect to them, and we still wanted to help them as volunteers. And whenever we wanted to film the family, we would ask them whether it was OK to film. And we would double-check with them after each shoot to see whether it was OK to have done that. Sometimes I think Yingying’s parents were just so nice and didn’t want to say no to other people, so it was really important to make sure everyone was on the same page. That really helped us a lot during the past three years of filming with the family.
It’s amazing some of the scenes you were able to capture. One in particular that comes to mind is when Yingying’s boyfriend comes across a dying bird in front of Yingying’s old dormitory and buries it. Tell us more about that.
We were just walking around that place and we heard something hit the wall or the window. And we found out it was a bird. At first, Xiaolin, Yingying’s boyfriend, actually tried to comfort the bird and tried to save it. But later on, it seemed like the bird was dead. And then he just started digging in the mud to bury it.
I didn’t really think too much of it when I first filmed it. But later when I was going through all the footage in post-production, that stood out as such a powerful and really meaningful scene. We talked to Xiaolin and he said he just felt like, at that moment, Yingying came back. He wasn’t able to bury her, you know, in real life. But burying the bird somehow felt like he was doing something for Yingying.
Before releasing the film to the public, you showed it to Yingying’s family first. How did they respond?
It was a little bit challenging for us to show them and figure out how to show them. They’re in China right now and I’m in the U.S., and because of COVID, I couldn’t travel. We didn’t want to just throw a link to them, so I ended up asking two of my friends in China to travel to Yingying’s parents’ home and show the film on their laptop. My co-producer and cinematographer Shilin Sun and I Skyped in. We just wanted to create a sense that we were actually with them watching the film and going through the journey together.
We were a little bit nervous before we showed it to them. We had several concerns. One is that there are a lot of emotional moments in the film. I didn’t know how the family was going to deal with this. And the second one is the family fight scene. In Chinese culture, we don’t really like to show family conflicts in public. It was difficult for them to watch. Yingying’s mom couldn’t stop crying when the film first started, but my friend was hugging her the whole time. Yingying’s father was actually quite calm throughout the whole process.
After watching the film, I asked them whether there were any concerns. They actually were OK with the family fight because they thought, you know, that’s just what happened. That’s the reality. And for them, they really wanted to get their story out and they really wanted the audience and the general public to remember Yingying as a very young, bright, talented woman and really to see what kind of hardship they’ve been going through over the past three years.