Director Sophia Luvara on Inside the Chinese Closet and the Importance of Being an Effective Spectator in Filmmaking

As part of our celebrations for  International Women’s Day on Tuesday, we caught up with Sophia Luvara, one of the most exciting directors from our Top 10 Women to Watch in Documentary Film feature. Despite having been shot in one of the world’s most secretive and closed-mouth countries, her first feature length documentary Inside the Chinese Closet gained remarkable access in to the untold stories of the Chinese LGBT community. The story of Cherry and Andy, two young gay people struggling with their family and society’s prejudice against them, Sophia develops a closeness and understanding of her subject that allows her to follow them in to the closed rooms, controversial “marriage fairs” and shadowy karaoke booths of their hidden lives. This year, the IDFA and Teddy nominated director is busy working on a coveted project on the Italian mafia. Alongside some exclusive photos from Inside the Chinese Closet we chat to her about her path in to directing and who excites her in today’s industry… 

How did you get in to documentary film?

I started a scholarship working on cancer research, but I soon found out that a life in a lab was not the best thing for me. One day I met some friends who were travelling the world making documentaries and I just thought: “This is what I want to do”. The week after I left my job and booked a plane ticket to London, where it all started. I started with small jobs in the film industry, building my network and travelling as much as I could to work on my first projects. When I was accepted at the Documentary Campus Masterschool I knew things were getting serious and my first feature film became a concrete project

Cherry and her Parents in Inside the Chinese Closet © Sophia LuvaraCherry and her Parents in Inside the Chinese Closet © Sophia Luvara

Is there a documentary or filmmaker who has particularly influenced or inspired you? 

One of my favourite documentaries, which also happens to be about China, is Last Train Home by Lixin Fan. This film follows one single family amidst an overwhelming stream of people in order to offer a wide perspective of present-day China. I admire the powerful use of cinematic images and attach great value to the visual aspect, trying to limit the use of dialogue to the bare essentials.

I admire the American Albert Maysles, director of Gimme Shelter (1970) and Grey Gardens (1975), and his philosophy about the importance of only being a spectator. In his films he uses his presence in such a way that he avoids putting people off or letting them feel the presence of the camera. I think his comment about an important human need is very true: ‘Everybody likes to give away secrets much rather than keep them. This is a well-known psychological fact’.

Cherry and Friends Inside the Chinese Closet © Sophia Luvara

What’s the most surprising encounter or situation that has triggered a story for you?

Many! It’s always people that trigger ideas for stories, a good example would be Cherry (one of the main characters of Inside the Chinese Closet). We were already following Andy for sometime when I met Cherry outside a club, she was so charismatic and full of energy that I decided to follow her and see where her story would take us. I can say now that it was a very good idea to do so.

What changes have you seen in the past few years?

In recent years financing independent one off documentaries has become more and more difficult, broadcasters are reluctant to invest in risky and long-term projects.

Where would you like to see the documentary genre going and why?

I would like to see a wider distribution for independent documentaries – on TV, cinemas and VOD – there are many great docs out there but people don’t know about them, and even when they know it’s always hard to find a way to watch them.

I would like to see people in the industry and the wider audience consider documentary less as a niche product and more as a film that they would choose to see either in the cinema, from a streaming service or on TV.

Andy Inside the Chinese Closet © Sophia Luvara

What’s been the most memorable moment for you whilst filming? 

There are a few, but if I have to pick one it has to be in Afghanistan, filming children receiving medical care in their village from fully armed soldiers who were just as scared as the children themselves.

Who do you think is an exciting up and coming documentary filmmaker? 

There is a new wave of young Chinese filmmakers that are making interesting documentaries about their country. They have to deal with great limitations when it comes to ‘sensitive subjects’ but what I find interesting is that they have a very unique style, different from what we are used to seeing in Europe or in the US.

What’s the best piece of advice that you would pass on to up and coming doc makers? 

Always shoot. Shoot even when you think that you won’t need the footage, and never switch off the camera after something good happens.

Cherry on Bike in Shanghai Inside the Chinese Closet © Sophia Luvara

Inside the Chinese Closet is screening in London on the 13th and 14th of March in the Curzon Soho and the Barbican Centre as part of Human Rights Watch Film Festival and on the 18th and 19th of March during the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival. Check out the film’s official website for further screenings across the world from the UK to the US and New Zealand.

With special thanks to Sophia for taking part in our interview.

By Megan O’Hara