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Artist, writer, and director Sophia Liu
Photo © Rémi Chapeaublanc

Sophia Liu is a Chinese writer and artist whose directorial debut, “Ne Te Retourne Pas,” was recently completed after months of tireless working and editing in Paris. The short film is a brilliant culmination of her own experiences, illustrated in the struggles of Louise and Natalie, whom the story follows. The film portrays the two women and their instantaneous attraction to one another, with dazzling cinematography and a carefully constructed rawness.

Cast as more than an enchanting backdrop, Paris itself plays a large role in this short film about the electrifying connection between two women who struggle to combat life’s torturous intricacies. Such connectedness to the scenery mirrors Liu’s own experiences there; born in China, Liu explains that she went to Paris “to offer myself time, experiences, possibility, and maturity,” after leaving home to live and grow alone at just 17.

“Ne Te Retourne Pas” is a stunning, poignant film that manages to speak to the questions and struggles that are universal among human beings. Liu’s foray into filmmaking demonstrates her artistic breadth, an acute attention to detail, and a talent for creating compelling dialogue. Here, the director is kind enough to elaborate on her filmmaking process, and her inspiration for the film.

Cultivating Culture: As a writer, titles, dialogue, and syntax are probably very important to you. Did you play around with different titles for the film? Did the film inform the title, or did the title inspire the film?

Sophia Liu: Yes, writing is my first devotion.  My life is constructed out of words: novels, poems, plays, and essays. Literature has a very important place in all my artistic expressions. I pay a lot of attention to the literary quality of my work. This film is a mixture of realistic and non-realistic styles, which I have come to terms with from the beginning as both the scriptwriter and the director. The balance is somehow difficult to hold. I tried to create a language style that is at once natural, credible, and poetic.

For the title, I struggled a long time not to use “Ne Te Retourne Pas,” because there is another feature film by Marina de Van in 2009 called the same. […] I’ve tried all the possible titles in my head, [but] nothing could be as relevant as “Ne Te Retourne Pas” (Don’t Turn Back) to the film’s message. I found there is a very powerful and graceful strength in this short imperative sentence, and it fits perfectly with what I wanted to express in the voice of love and of loss: “Close your eyes, go ahead, never turn back, against all odds, and beyond all loss and fears — Because I am here, always here for you, somewhere behind you where you don’t see.”

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“I wanted to make a film that records the beauty of Paris in the memory of our time, I wanted to film the street, the bars, the places where I’ve passed, where I’ve stayed, and where I’ve loved.” – Sophia Liu
Image: still shot from “Ne Te Retourne Pas”

CC: Paris itself seems to play a very significant role in the film, and you even dedicated the film to the city of Paris. What is your personal connection to the city, and what was it like filming Ne Te Retourne Pas there?

SL: Paris is my second hometown, and I have a very special attachment to it. […] Living here by myself, I must learn to understand things very quickly, deal with people and problems, and especially be free and independent. No one will teach you, you must teach yourself, and be the master of your time and your life. I recreated my whole life and my existence here, all by myself. I walked so many times in the streets of Paris alone at night, I know the bridges, the lamps, the squares. I know this city by heart. Here, I met so many people that I loved and lost, that I continue to meet and continue to love. My youth and the most beautiful moments of my life are in the air of this city. Here, I struggled also with my body and soul. But I am proud, because here, I could see clouds moving, I could take a train and sleep in the forest or by the sea. I could breathe, think, create, do what I want, say what I want and be whom I want to be.

So filming in Paris for my first project is very exciting. I wanted to make a film that records the beauty of Paris in the memory of our time, I wanted to film the street, the bars, the places where I’ve passed, where I’ve stayed, and where I’ve loved.

CC: The moment when Louise and Natalie first meet is incredibly poignant and striking. What inspired you to have them meet this way? Was anything about this scene motivated by true events?

SL: To be honest, this scene is my favorite. I am quite shy to tell, but yes there is a true event behind the images. In 2008, once I walked by a café in the morning at “Rue Des Écoles,” I stopped in front of the shop window because I saw a very charming and elegant lady staring at me with a coffee in her left hand, and the spoon was hanging in the air beside her smiling red lips. I was stupefied and paralyzed, I couldn’t move my feet. I felt literarily “attacked” by a huge wave of tenderness and time stopped at that moment. It was absolutely “surrealistic”! Such an event is unforgettable and is the best creative source to use.

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The moment Natalie and Louise meet is remarkably poignant.
Image: still shot from “Ne Te Retourne Pas”

CC: Your technical background is in Communications and Theater Studies, as well as in writing. What led or inspired you to create Ne Te Retourne Pas and embark down a directorial path?

SL: Cinema is one of my great passions. On the night of my 14th birthday, I walked alone all night long in the street of my hometown; I was stricken by a profound sadness for the emptiness of human life, as well as the infinite beauty of the universe. From that moment, I knew that one day my artistic expression would find in outlet in Cinema. In cinematic art, you can find everything: movement, images, sounds, music, literature, philosophy, technology, science, etc. I think a good director must have a deep connection with all arts to be able to make good films. I love cinema as much as I love theatre. They are different art forms, especially in a technical aspect, but they are all kind of complex arts, and have very close connections.

After I got my graduate degree in theatre studies, there was a period where I felt a huge annihilation, which sparked almost immediately the explosion of my creation. I was trying to be in contact with art in every possible way: writing, reading, piano, photography, video, painting, etc. After, I said to myself that it was just impossible to stay in a corner to create alone, I wanted to perceive a new world with a project. Benjamin [Blot] watched my first video on YouTube that I dedicated to my best friend and he asked me “what if we make a film together?” That’s how the project started, then we were preparing seriously for almost a year.

Creating “NTRP” is a pure necessity to survive and recover the ravishing radiance of life and the lost glory of yesterday, it’s a self-deliverance from loneliness, loss, and suffering impossibility to love. It was my way of kissing the past goodbye.

CC: You explore many tense, pivotal moments in the film. Did you find it challenging to balance instances of intensity with more mundane interactions in a short film time frame?

SL: Yes absolutely. In a short film time frame, we must make very difficult choice, and must decide what is most important to tell and to show. Especially in editing, my editors and my co-director know how hard it is to persuade me to cut content! As a director, it’s hard to throw out part of your hard work; as a writer of the screenplay, it’s even harder! […] So we needed some “beautiful ellipses” and a “strong conscience” in editing. I want to specially thank our editor Gwenda for her beautiful work on this. We showed all the tense and pivotal moments of the story, but it would have been even better if we had more moments of mundane interaction between the characters in their daily life. I think a good film is not only a good work to tell a beautiful and moving story; it should also create authentic characters with multiple dimensions. Alas, we have only 26 minutes to tell everything.

CC: Currently, you’re studying the ways in which female identities exist in contemporary theater. Does your academic research inform your creative process? Did you find yourself exploring gender stylistically in “Ne Te Retourne Pas?”

SL: Yes. It’s a passionate subject for me […] “Gender Issues” are in the center of my interest and my existence. I know many people think that “feminism” is old fashioned in 2013. I will probably use it all my life to “think and rethink about” gender, sexuality and feminism, in permanence, not only under a social and political context, but also in an artistic and literary aspect. What I’ve learned and developed in my thesis has a big influence to the way I define and express myself as a woman. Gender reflections are omniscient in my life and in my creative process.Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 1.04.45 PM

In “NTRP”, the gender exploration is still subtle. I prefer a discreet elegance than “gender labeled” propaganda. Throughout the film production, there is an international “LGBTQ” community supporting us from behind the scenes. You can feel it from every element of the film: image, screenplay, music, communication visual style etc. My big question from the beginning is that whether we should define this film as a “lesbian film.” Personally, I am never comfortable with definitions and labels, but today after all what we’ve done on the project, I’ll say yes. It’s a lesbian film, but more than that. Because it interrogates the identity of two women who hold mutual attraction, at the same time it deals with the existential and loving problems of the young generation of our time. However, the gender issue is at the center; if we choose to be queer, it was just because we don’t want to fall into the binary gender system without even being conscious of it. Being androgynous is not being fashionable. It was a choice of life for freedom, a way that we come in terms with our own gender duality and multiplicity.

CC: What are your thoughts on women in film – both behind the camera and in front of it?

SL: It seems there are always more women in front of the camera than behind of it. Notable women film directors are as precious as pandas. I can’t think about a name of an American film director, even though I like a lot of American women actresses. In France, there are women directors who are famous in the intellectual circle, such as Agnès Verda, Diana Kurys, and Céline Sciamm. But the film industry is still a very masculine area, especially in directing. This is a fact almost everywhere. In the directing departments of film schools, you can find talented young women directors. Things are changing very quickly in recently years. We see more and more women, especially the young generation, putting themselves in film directing, whether with a professional film study background or not, and some even get very successful. The film “La Bataille de Solférino” made Justine Triet a successful young women director. Some of my friends have done or are working on their own film projects. I am very happy about that.

CC: You describe the film as a “dream, a miracle, and a pure adventure.” Can you elaborate on this?

SL: It is weird to say, but to be honest, until today after I watched and re-watched, worked and reworked thousands of time on the film, I still can’t persuade myself that I’ve completed the project, not only written, co-directed it, but also produced it. Last month when I watched it in a 1000 seat theatre at our world premiere, I felt like watching a film of someone else. I had no cinema study background, no experience, no producer, and no financial support. What I had was only the sincerity of creation and the writing in my computer that could stay like that forever.

I met Benjamin in school, who became later my co-director and supported me to launch together the project. I met Anne Émond (a young talented filmmaker from Montreal) who helped me on my screenplay writing and later on editing direction. I found the two actresses, without whom I would never have launched this project in such a serious way. I got support in every possible way from my family, my friends, my school, and a lot of organizations, such as MFC (Maison du Film Court) and Touscoprod. I met Niki and Anna in my favorite bar “La Mutinerie” in Paris and I worked with them from a distance (Paris-Gothenburg-Stockholm) for a few months. That’s how I got the music and the graphic style of my dreams! Three editors took turns in Paris one after another during almost a year, to get as close to my intention as possible. I went to Sweden and stayed a week for the music production and was so well received by Niki and her friends. My friend Jen helped me with the English translation for subtitles and communications. She has always been there for me, like a lighthouse. I flew to NYC and met a Brooklyn-based writer Claire who encouraged me.

It was with my encounters with artists from everywhere in the world, with their work, their talent, their generosity and their support that I was able to complete this work. I’ve learned a lot from everyone. If I have been able to achieve something interesting, it was because I have been so well surrounded. It was much more than a film, but the most significant thing I’ve ever done until now. I called this experience “a dream, a miracle, and a pure adventure” — “a folie,” absolutely.

Currently, Sophia Liu is still reeling from the excitement of completing her ambitious project. She says that she is thirsty and will take some time to “drink some poetry” and rest before creating any more films. Learn more about “Ne Te Retourne Pas” at the film’s official website.