Nanfu Wang made history filming Hooligan Sparrow, a documentary about a Chinese activist who is globally renown. The documentary was short listed for an Academy Award but didn’t make the cut. However it ripped up the festival circuit and won other awards to lift Nanfu Wang into the heavens as a superb documentarian. What none of us knew who know Nanfu Wang cursorily, was that she was working on an incredible documentary before Hooligan Sparrow, then had to leave off filming to go to China. The title of that documentary eventually became I Am Another You.
What eventually evolved into I Am Another You began when Nanfu Wang traveled around the United States encountering various young people like herself with whom she would share stories about their search for life’s meaning, a purpose, a lifestyle and many different perspectives. However, she was most intrigued by a charming, lovable twenty-year-old soul traveler, Dylan Olsen, whose wisdom and philosophical beauty completely overwhelmed her. They spoke for hours about life, the quest, discovery, about peace and about freedom. Nanfu Wang was enthralled with his consciousness which she tried to fathom but could not. From that point onward, she made her quest Dylan. Why did he make the choices he did? Who was he? She interviewed him and interviewed others who knew him to get a sense of his ethos and what she learned about him turned into an amazing story.
Dylan believed in the courage and righteousness of freedom to live as he wished and spiritually love whomever he encountered. He had put away strictures about how to “be” to succeed, and how to uphold mores which supposedly defined happiness as acquiring material things. He put consumerism and ownership behind him. He had little money, he had just a knapsack and the clothes on his back when she met him. He was free from time and the pressure of being accountable to a boss at work which was perhaps tantamount to a form of enslavement. He did not want to have things which would own him. He did not want to keep up with bills that would strangle and confine him. He did not want to work a job he hated to keep up a lifestyle that was meaningless. He wanted to be “out in the world” allowing coincidence and serendipity and pure consciousness to make his way for him.
For a time, Nanfu Wang filmed him, making him the sole subject of her documentary, not understanding where this might take her. But his influence was rubbing of on her. She saw that freedom was his portion and he lived freely. By day he walked on beaches and on the grass, barefoot, allowing the earth to ground him and give him place. At night he slept under the stars. Sometimes he chopped wood or helped others in exchange for food and shelter. Other times in striking up conversations with people, they invited him to stay over and fed him because they fell in love with his free-wheeling, gentle spirit and soul.
Fascinated by Dylan Olsen, Nanfu Wang shadowed him then decided to live in complete freedom walking the streets with Dylan and filming him on-the-ground in real time to capture his life without the bonds of culture or society. This was an ethnography. She did the same as he did, not knowing where her next meal would come from, searching for food as Dylan did, in garbage cans, eating food other folks had thrown away. Cleanliness was a problem. At times it was extremely difficult for her, without bathroom facilities to call her own. She went a week without a shower and was so happy to be invited by someone who invited them home with empathetic understanding and very gracious hospitality. Later when Nanfu Wang attempted to find the generous angel and thank him, she couldn’t remember where he lived.
Clearly, Nanfu Wang had not chosen to live this way, but Dylan had. This experience changed her and informed her understanding of how decisions are made by individuals, but she could not make the same type of decision as he had for whatever reason, perhaps because she is Nanfu Wang and he is Dylan Olsen and all that that entailed about each of them. Then her filming was interrupted and she had to leave for China to film Hooligan Sparrow. And they argued.
When she came back from China after filming Sparrow’s heart-rending and courageous story, she experienced a taste of what living on the streets meant for someone in China. Living on the streets with Dylan for a brief time filming him came in good stead for Nanfu Wang. The fear she experienced with Dylan (potentially being arrested sleeping in a park at night) was nothing in comparison to being on the run in China when she was one step ahead of the police who were trying to catch up with Sparrow. She witnessed Sparrow’s eviction from friends’ safe houses and eventually discovered that Sparrow was left with her daughter and belongings on the side of the road in a remote area on the mainland. Sparrow was homeless. It was an irony that the lives of both Sparrow and Dylan Olsen had converged in their condition of homelessness but not in their choices, perceptions or goals.
Sparrow was forced into homelessness against her will when she stood up to government corruption and attempted to fight for the rights of women and children. Dylan had chosen to be homeless as a means to achieve fearless freedom from cultural restraint for the purpose of soul growth. Nanfu Wang noted the synchronicity between the two heroes of her documentaries and their vast differences. She decided to forge ahead and continue to explore who Dylan was and why he made the choices he did despite whether or not she would be able to continue to shadow him. She had decided she would not live with him in what to her was an incredibly limited life on the streets in nice weather locales in the United States.
What Nanfu Wang discovered about herself, about Dylan Olsen and those close to him who remain intentionally distant while allowing Dylan to carve out his own life for himself, is a story which will resonate with every human heart. It will echo because the documentarian has an acute sensibility herself and is profoundly intuitive and loving and cinematically gifted.
I Am Another You is poetic and gravitational story telling that draws one in to the mystery of consciousness, being, spirituality and the principles of how people decide the best ways, the only ways to break free from self…to become finer, more evolved individuals. How and why Nanfu Wang selected Dylan Olsen as her muse to tell both his story and hers is part of the mystery of who they are. And part of that mystery is how Nanfu Wang was able to create this amazing and incredible film about life journeys and how we individually and with fearless abandon must fashion our own journey whose road is roughly hewn by our own consciousness.
Without giving the heart of the documentary away, suffice to say that Nanfu Wang discovers some of the puzzle pieces that reveal facets of Dylan’s background that root the core of his evolving life. She also examines what he has lost and what he has gained through weaving his adventures which inevitably informs his own spiritual journey. And with complete and free access to family and other individuals, she discovers how Dylan has impacted his father John and his brother and how they have been challenged to love, have hope and understand that nothing is written in forever. To live in the moment is a healthy dynamic as is living without fear in faith.
In I Am Another You’s poetic, lyrical structure and engaging story telling arc, Nanfu Wang threads Dylan’s thoughts, his phrases, his poetry which is as haunting as time. The effect is beyond memorable and you cannot help but fall in love with Nanfu Wang, Dylan Olsen, his family and others who people this work. That is because there is little self-conscious varnishing. Her narrative that explains her process pf shadowing Dylan, is forthright and unassuming. In a time of political divisiveness, Dylan’s story is without judgment, suspended beyond politics, abiding in a realm of peace and rest. It encourages us to see how there are more similarities than differences among us, if we rise above and challenge ourselves to expand our vision toward a human horizon.
I Am You won a number of awards at SXSW. It will surely win more. It is not only good, it is simply phenomenal.