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SXSW: Finding Yingying

“Life is too short to be ordinary.”

Yingying Zhang

26-year old PhD student Yingying Zhang went missing on June 9th, 2017. After graduating from Peking University, Yingying traveled from China to study Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. Yingying was full of wonder and hope. She was in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Xiaolin and excited about this new phase in life. She documented those early days in the US in her journal. Mere weeks after she arrived, she made the fatal mistake of getting into a car with a stranger. She had missed the bus and was late for an appointment. A man claiming to be an off-duty cop offered her a ride. Yingying has never been heard from again.

Directed and produced by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, Finding Yingying is a sensitive portrayal of a young woman with a bright future and a family struggling to come to terms with their loss. The documentary features extensive interviews and footage of Yingying’s boyfriend, parents, brother, aunt and friends as they search for answers and prepare for the criminal trial that would come two years later.  Filmmaker Shi graduated from the same university as Yingying. Although they had never met, when Jiayan heard of Yingying’s disappearance she felt an immediate connection and a strong desire to help. About her filmmaking approach, Shi said:

Finding Yingying was made in a vérité observational filmmaking style… I wanted to allow the audience to feel that they were experiencing the painful and challenging journey along with the family.”

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

Shi humanizes her subject. As is the case with many true crime stories, violent acts and perpetrators are glorified to satisfy the audience’s hunger for salacious details. This is not the case with Finding Yingying. In fact, this documentary is the complete opposite of that. The majority of the film is focused solely on Yingying and her family. We learn that Yingying was inquisitive, thoughtful and kind. Her parents traveled to the US for the first time to help search for Yingying and held out hope that she was still alive. Shi becomes a living representative of Yingying through this film. She reads segments of Yingying’s diary, bringing her voice to the forefront. Shi said:

“my voice and presence are integrated into the film to show my deep personal connection to Yingying, and my deep desire to tell  her and her family’s story beyond the headlines. I want to preserve her legacy.”

Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

The murderer, fellow PhD student Brend Christensen is given very little attention, as he should be. We learn as much as we need to about the investigation, how the FBI tracked him down with surveillance footage and how they employed his girlfriend to secretly record Christensen. The details of Yingying’s murder are kept to a minimum.

Finding Yingying turns the focus away from the murder and on to the victim, an inquisitive, thoughtful and kind young woman who brought joy to those around her. It’s a beautiful documentary that will make you think twice about how true crime films portray victims.

To learn more information about Finding Yingying, please visit the official website: www.findingyingying.com 

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