When Northwestern journalism graduate student Jenny Shi ’17 MS heard about the disappearance of Yingying Zhang from the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in June 2017, the news hit close to home. Both international students from China, Zhang and Shi had attended Peking University and were adjusting to life on a U.S. college campus.
After Zhang’s disappearance, Shi began collecting footage of Zhang’s family in their quest to find their daughter. They thought it would be good to show Zhang’s educational setting to their family in China.
“Some people have money, and they donate. Some people live nearby, and they cook food. Some people, like students, help translate,” Shi says. “I was thinking about what I could do to help this family.” Telling their story was her contribution.
Shi began working on the project as a student documentary in professor and documentary filmmaker Brent Huffman's graduate documentary course in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.
When a suspect was identified in Zhang’s disappearance, the project quickly evolved to a feature-length documentary from Kartemquin Films. In 2017 Huffman came on as a producer to help craft the story to reach a wider audience and develop the film into a 90-minute documentary.
Shi spent two years working on the film, chronicling the family’s push for justice in a foreign land. In the spring Finding Yingying won the South by Southwest Film Festival 2020 Documentary Feature Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Voice. The film was set to premiere in March at the festival, which was canceled due to the coronavirus. The documentary was acquired by Viacom's MTV Documentary Films, which will be handling distribution.
Shi says Zhang’s story reminds her of her own journey to the U.S. and the unanticipated challenges of navigating a foreign land. American students’ support, Shi says, could help make a difference in international students’ safety and adjustment to the U.S.
Shi, a graduate of Kartemquin’s Diverse Voices in Docs fellowship program, has dedicated herself to making films with an intentional social impact while also empowering communities of color to tell their own stories.