Nicola Fan is a film director and graphic designer based in Hong Kong. Passionate about leveraging the vehicles of film and media to inspire social change, Nicola directed She Objects, a feature length documentary centered on the media’s creation and perpetuation of gender stereotypes, and the often harmful consequences of these stereotypes. She Objects was commissioned by The Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong, an organization dedicated to securing the empowerment of women and girls in Hong Kong society. Nicola also directed Inspire Hope, a short documentary for the Society for Community Organization on the subject of the power of volunteer engagement and the stark wealth disparities in Hong Kong. Beyond her work in film direction and graphic design, Nicola also works as a Creative/Art Director for marketing and advertising campaigns. Her clients have included Red Bull, Samsung, New Balance, J. P. Morgan, Time Warner. Nicola’s work has been recognized by the Hong Kong Sundance Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival, New York Independent Film Festival, and Berlin Independent Film Festival.
What is your background?
Nicola Fan: I grew up in Hong Kong and went to Rhode Island School of Design for College, where I majored in Graphic Design and experimented a lot with film, video and animation. Since then, I’ve worked as a Graphic Design consultant in J. P. Morgan and a Multi-media Assistant at Time Warner in New York. Then I returned to Hong Kong and worked as an Art Director at Cheil Worldwide (Advertising Agency). Through those experiences, I gained working knowledge of brand design, executed advertising campaigns/pitches, and developed media content.
However, I was still craving to do more storytelling through short films, music videos and such. By late 2013, I started freelancing as a graphic designer/filmmaker in Hong Kong. Using my own savings and help from a few friends, I created a music video “The Eve” and a short documentary Inspire Hope. Through those pieces, I gained freelance work with independent production houses, agencies, corporate clients, etc.
You directed Inspire Hope, a short film commissioned by the Society for Community Organization (SoCO) about SoCO’s initiatives to bridge the chasm between the privileged and underprivileged members of Hong Kong society. Can you discuss your experiences directing Inspire Hope, and some of your key discoveries during the filmmaking process?
Nicola Fan: I was extremely touched by the volunteer-mentors’ efforts and genuine care for their mentees. It was refreshing to meet such open and giving individuals from Hong Kong, who all hoped to improve the children’s growth. It was mutually understood between mentors and mentees that real change doesn’t come overnight, but through weekly consistent activities to cultivate learning and nurture relationships. I got to feel how they have touched each other’s lives in very different yet significant ways.
The mentees were all very bright, adorable and curious. It was hard to imagine they come from such harsh living conditions and complex family backgrounds.
It was a blessing to meet all the interviewees through SoCO, which I otherwise may not have come across. To capture a glimpse of these low-key yet big-hearted people, quietly making positive changes in their everyday lives.
You also directed She Objects, a documentary commissioned by The Women’s Foundation Hong Kong about the biased, unrealistic and dehumanizing representations of women in traditional and new forms of media. What inspired you to direct She Objects, and what has been its impact so far?
Nicola Fan: I was immediately drawn to the project’s brief the moment I saw it, because it recalled my experiences as a girl growing up in Hong Kong. I’ve battled with voices from all directions and from within myself about what a girl should be – how I should look, behave, etc. For years, I’ve bought into these beliefs, but it didn’t make me any happier. Then for years, I boycotted media content (magazines, TV shows/movies, music, etc) that exploits gender stereotypes or only uses the “sex sells” tactic. It wasn’t until the opportunity to direct She Objects came up that I looked back into this media content for research purposes. Thankfully, it doesn’t have the same influence anymore as it did when I was younger!
I’m very grateful to have been given the chance to explore and speak out about this social phenomenon through the medium of documentary film. In terms of impact, it certainly has generated a lot thoughtful questions and encouraged people to share their own stories/experiences. Otherwise, it’s not a common topic that HK people openly discuss in-depth. If anything, it usually only comes in the form of prickly short comments, whether it be a mother about her daughter’s weight or a girl’s expectation on how much her boyfriend should provide for her. By bringing this film into schools and various communities in HK, we hope to create awareness and encourage dialogue amongst parents and children, boys and girls, one and oneself.
How did you get involved with The Women’s Foundation, and can you share some of your favorite experiences?
Nicola Fan: 2 years ago, I did a short documentary called Inspire Hope for a local NGO called Society of Community Organization. Their focus is to help people of underprivileged background living in cage/cubicle homes/homeless. To shine a more hopeful light on the matter, “Inspire Hope” was about the organization’s child-mentorship scheme, a program that calls for volunteers to mentor children from said background through all sorts of activities to broaden their learning horizon.
Since its launch, it has fortunately received good reviews and through word of mouth, The Women’s Foundation came across the short. I was more than excited to learn that they were interested in having me on board to direct their project She Objects, on a subject that’s close to my heart.
One of my favorite experiences working on this project is meeting all the people along the way. I was constantly inspired by each person’s stories, thoughts and insights. Within the production team, it was also everyone’s first time working together, so we all took a leap of faith in committing on a feature-length project! Everyone had the project’s best interest in mind, so it was amazing to experience a collective dedication and passion for the work.
From your experiences with She Objects and The Women’s Foundation, and from your own personal experiences, what do you find most frustrating about the media’s portrayal of women?
Nicola Fan: Ever since I was young, I’ve noticed that in media content (TV shows, films, music, cartoon, toys, etc) there is only a narrow range of style for female characters, yet male characters come in all shapes, looks, sizes and personalities! Growing up, I’ve always been silently frustrated by the limited choices girls seem to have in terms of their image/presentation, and almost all guys are blindly head over heels for good-looking girls…
Amongst TV shows/films, the chances of an unattractive-looking male paired with an attractive-looking female is always much higher than the other way around. Is it sinful for a male to have a less good-looking girlfriend on screen?
Through working on She Objects, I got to know Tanaya Guha who helped developed a software called “Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient” which measures screen and speaking time of female characters in Hollywood films. After analyzing 100 top-grossing films from 2015, the findings revealed a huge gender gap on the big screen. I think insights like this can help content creators be aware and inspire change. I believe it’s important to have strong female presence and diverse female characters on screen, in order to empower young girls and enlighten our audience’s perspective of how things can possibly be.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges to eliminating the harmful presentations of women in the media?
Nicola Fan: The challenge is that people are still buying into them! Personally, I think tabloid magazines/news embody some of the most harmful content, in which other media outlets and readers tend to pick up the language and tone as well. We all get drawn to sensationalism, but let’s also actively support content that offers intellectualism and diversity.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Nicola Fan: My mom was the first to introduce me into the wondrous world of theatre/musical, quality films/cartoons, illustrated books and more. Her love for travel and foreign cultures also opened my eyes. Although she wasn’t a big fan of my decision to pursue an art-related career, she still always nurtured that side of me by updating me on upcoming shows around town.
On a personal level, why is women’s empowerment important to you?
Nicola Fan: We are all so much more capable than we allow ourselves to be. I see so many girls holding themselves back because they don’t want to “look bad”. Too many trap themselves in the consumption of materialistic things and external beauty, and/or get caught up in toxic relationships. There is so much more room to develop one’s hobbies, interests and passion. Take the time to nurture, develop and invest in yourself internally!
From your experiences, why do you think film and media are important vehicles for effecting social change?
Nicola Fan: Media is larger than life, and has the power to spread a message and ease people’s acceptance/understanding of a subject matter. Its capability of stimulating emotions and educating can create discussion/dialogue among viewers, in order to inspire and drive change.
What advice do you have for future filmmakers interested in social justice and international development?
Nicola Fan: If you find a topic/story/cause that interests you, go for it! Too often, I’ve seen many talented creators abandoning their project mid-way due to various reasons. Stick to your mission, finish it and show others what you’ve got.
For social justice development, seek out relevant organizations, people/social workers that can give you insider information to your focus. Be truthful to what you’re presenting. Know that you have the responsibility and power to send a message, to show an audience a perspective that will potentially push social boundaries. Powerful films can literally change the world.
Are there books, movies and websites that are inspiring you right now about gender equality, women’s empowerment and social impact?
Nicola Fan: For me, some of my biggest inspirations are female musicians such as Lauryn Hill, Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu. They are sensitive yet groundbreaking in their craft. Through their poetry and music, you can sense their delicacy and strength. And that to me is a beautiful quality.