Breaking the Silence: Exploring ‘Singing for Silence’ with Zhang Yixin

Published June 8, 2023

Jiaozhou Rd — Zhang Yixin is a filmmaker born in 1985. She graduated from The National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts and has been making documentaries and commercials since 2008. Zhang worked as a producer for and Panda Media, contributing to the production and development of various projects.

Zhang’s films focus on women’s strength and vulnerable social groups, including cancer patients, folk musicians, deportees, AV stars, and lesbians in fake marriages. Some of Zhang’s notable short films win awards at film festivals, including “Sex and Happiness,” which gained popularity online, “And hitchhiking to MIDI” which captured the attention of young viewers and was compared to “On the Road.”, “Electroplating Girl”: music for girls with cancer. Zhang has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in China. Her film “My Little Lies” is about the pressure of lesbians marriage.

Zhang Yixin’s documentaries also explore cultural and philosophical subjects. “The Path to Xuefeng” provides insight into Zen Buddhism and its teachings, while “Nishan” delves into the life and philosophy of Confucius, and its effect on the Chinese. These films foster understanding and appreciation for different belief systems.

Zhang Yixin is passionate about challenging societal biases and promoting inclusivity through her films. “Singing for Silence” is Zhang’s upcoming feature film, which tells the story of hearing-impaired children and their music. The film has been selected for various film festivals and pitching events. It explores themes of identity, bias, and the power of music.

Vera: let’s talk about “Singing for Silence. “It’s your first feature film and has garnered significant attention, and we’re all eagerly anticipating its release. it has been recognized and selected for prestigious festivals and events. How does it feel?

Zhang Yixin: I am grateful that “Singing for Silence” has been recognized by the film community, It’s truly a gratifying experience. It not only validates the hard work but also to share important stories with a wider audience. It’s a reminder that storytelling has the power to create connections and make a difference.

Vera: Can you give us an overview of “Singing for Silence.” ?

Zhang Yixin: “Singing for Silence” is a deeply personal project for me. In 2018, my artist friend Bo told me about this choir he organized, so I began filming. It’s a choir composed of nine hearing-impaired children. They are from Lingyun, a small county in the mountains of southwestern China. They come from impoverished families belonging to ethnic minorities, including Zhuang and Yao. The main character is a girl named Wei Wei. we follow their journey over six years, capturing their ups and downs, bittersweet moments, and the challenges they face through music, they find a sense of identity, but they also confront a world that seems to limit their possibilities.

Vera: Wei Wei seems like a remarkable character. What makes her so special?

Zhang Yixin: she is a confident and justice-loving kid. She won’t stay quiet if someone tries to bully her. She always stands up for vulnerable kids. She never sheds tears in front of others, even when she’s feeling down, she quickly bounces back. It all started five years ago when Weiwei, just a 4-year-old, sang “Ah-” to stop artists Bo and Yong from leaving. That’s how the whole story of the choir began.

(Weiwei 9 years old)

Vera: Does she enjoy singing?

Zhang Yixin: She loves to sing and dance, She is a born star!

Vera: It’s fascinating to see how music has impacted Wei Wei’s life. Can you tell us more?

Zhang Yixin: Being part of the choir has opened up a bigger world for Wei Wei, She’s flown on airplanes, seen the sea, visited bustling cities, and even performed on CCTV. She’s become the pride of her family and a star in her village. Weiwei used to be a bit headstrong, but being part of the choir her make new friends, some of Non-hearing impairment. She was loved a lot, and She’s becoming more peaceful and polite

Vera: That sounds heartwarming. Is singing particularly challenging for them?

Zhang Yixin: this can be challenging, especially when it comes to pitch and tone. They cannot hear accurately, they rely on vibrations to stay in tune. However, with dedicated practice, they are able to overcome these challenges.

Vera: we’re curious to understand why chose to focus on singing for these hearing-impaired children, If it’s so difficult for them, why?

Zhang Yixin: in the past, hearing-impaired were often discouraged of their voices. their voices used to be considered ugly and people didn’t think they should sing. But they are curious and happy when they are encouraged to do so, When we first encouraged the children to sing in a school for the hearing impaired, at first they didn’t believe it, artists still went to see them every day, and a few days later, they realized that they were genuinely being encouraged and supported to sing, something remarkable happened. Their faces with excitement and happiness, they eagerly gathered around the microphone, share their voices, and for the first time they were allowed to enter the music classroom and play the piano happily, it was really touching.

Vera: It must have been a truly touching moment to witness their joy when they discovered their ability to sing. How do these children perceive sound? Do they have a different understanding of music?

Zhang Yixin: While they may not hear music in the same way, not perceive sound in the traditional sense, they have their own ways, and rely on other senses, and rhythms, such as vibrations. They have their own connection to sound.

We talked to a neurologist, the brain’s capacity to enjoy music is not solely dependent on the ears. Hearing impairments can experience the emotional and cognitive aspects of music. The brain’s auditory processing areas, such as the auditory cortex, can still respond to musical stimuli, albeit in different ways. Other regions of the brain involved in emotional processing, memory, and reward systems also contribute to the enjoyment of music.

(after the performance)

Vera: That sounds amazing, are there any children in the choir who don’t want to sing?

Zhang Yixin: yes there are some who tried it, didn’t have a lot of interest, and then quit, in any group there may be varying levels of interest, and It’s not easy to stick to anything.

Vera: How many kids are in this choir now?

Zhang Yixin: 9

Vera: Most of the 9 children won’t become professional singers or make a living from that, In a competitive society, should they learn more practical skills than singing?

Zhang Yixin: That’s a valid point. I understand the emphasis on pragmatism in society, especially when it comes to education and career prospects. However, it’s important to recognize that education is not solely about achieving immediate tangible success or financial gains. It also encompasses personal growth, emotional development, and the nurturing of talents and passions. Through singing and choir, they learn important life skills such as teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and self-expression, it teaches them the value of practice, and working towards a goal. These skills can be applied to various aspects of their lives, beyond just music.

Vera: focusing on heartwarming stories may overshadow the systemic issues faced by these communities. How do you ensure that your films also shed light on the need for broader societal changes?

Zhang Yixin: I actually thought it was a heartwarming story at first, but then I realized it wasn’t. It’s hard to, whether it’s kids or artists. their experiences in a larger social and cultural framework.

Vera: There is a concern that the portrayal of these groups as solely defined by their struggles and disabilities might risk their identities. How do you ensure goes beyond simplistic narratives of victimhood?

Zhang Yixin: That’s a good question, I used to want to tell the story of this choir, but then I changed my focus to tell the story of Weiwei, delving into Weiwei’s aspirations, I realized that honing in on Weiwei’s individual journey allowed for a more specific exploration of identity, to depict the complexities live, to portray a multidimensional character who defies stereotypes

Vera: We know the choir has garnered media attention, made a big impact in China, and sparked conversations about inclusivity, disability rights, and the power of art in the film, does change the fate of these children? Does it offer them a pathway to a better life?

Zhang Yixin: Yeah, you know, it’s a tough reality, it doesn’t magically solve all their problems or change their whole lives. When the pandemic hit, The choir had to stop, and more than one girl had to make tough choices, like dropping out of school and getting married early or starting families. The choir was not a solution to the systemic issues that these children encounter.

Vera: It’s heartbreaking, What about Weiwei then?

Zhang Yixin: The artists went to see the children and told them not to lose hope, even though the artists were also very lost. Weiwei always believed that she would sing again, and she did now. After the pandemic, the choir is back together, but Meiping found herself stuck in the realities of life after getting married. Despite her desire to return it’s impossible for her. She occasionally sings to her two years old baby. there are also some children who graduated and go to work

Vera: It’s bittersweet, It’s important to address the structural issues these children face. Does your film reveal that?

Zhang Yixin: Absolutely. also imply the broader social issues they encounter. It’s about the unequal treatment of hearing-impaired, particularly girls, in education, employment, and social opportunities. They deserve better education and more opportunities.

Vera: The choir may not change their entire lives, but it changes moments. It changes their outlook. It gives them something to hold onto, something to cherish. And that is invaluable.

Zhang Yixin: yeah, singing won’t pay the bills or give them a stable livelihood. That’s the reality we have to face. It’s not just about the choir. It’s about the system.

Vera: But still it’s inspiring to see how music has shaped their world and provided opportunities for growth and connection.

Zhang Yixin: Yes, they show us when breaking down bias, everyone can discover their unique voices and talents. art and music can transcend biases and create understanding, and change happens little by little.

Vera: It’s a reminder that we must work towards an inclusive society, where individuals are not limited by their differences.that we can break free from bias and create a more equitable world. Now, as we wrap up our conversation, what are your hopes for “Singing for Silence”?

Zhang Yixin: My greatest hope is that the film” will touch hearts and inspire viewers, Through the story and their music, I hope to spark conversations about inclusivity and empathy. I want to explore Self-bias and social bias often a limitation on people, when breaking down bias, everyone can discover their unique voices and talents. Overcoming biases required personal determination and support from everyone in society

If the film can encourage even a small change in perception or promote understanding, I would consider it a success.

Vera: Thank you, Zhang Yixin, for sharing your insights and giving us a glimpse into your creative process. We eagerly await the release of “Singing for Silence” and look forward to the impact it will undoubtedly have in the realm of documentary filmmaking.

Zhang Yixin: Thank you for having me.

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