Interview: How the Hong Kong Art Scene & Heartbreak Shaped Andrew Hevia’s Documentary ‘Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window’
When Cuban-American director Andrew Hevia first set out to make a documentary about the art scene in Hong Kong, the plan was fairly straightforward. Uncover the up-and-coming artists who were affiliated with Art Basel: Hong Kong, a prestigious yearly art show that features works from Hong Kong and the surrounding regions. This wasn’t his first time doing so–a few years earlier, he had shot Rising Tide: A Story of Miami Artists (2012), which focused on Art Basel: Miami, the States’ version of the exhibition. There was nothing to suggest that Hevia, whose credits include being one of the co-founders of Miami’s Borscht Film Festival and a co-producer for Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, would run into any problems. However, as he would later find out, this task was much more difficult than he had anticipated.
Although he was supported by some generous funding from the Fulbright Program, Hevia became lost in his new surroundings with no Cantonese skills or friends to guide him around. Filming and getting information became a much harder task than it was back at home. Hevia was further plagued by heartbreak–he soon found himself at the “tail-end of a broken relationship”* which further complicated the situation. It also wasn’t until he started to dive into his film’s subject matter that he came to the realization that it would be impossible for him to make an “authoritative” documentary about Art Basel: Hong Kong as a “white, English speaking western expat.” The film that he had envisioned making seemed to be out of his grasp.
Hevia then made the executive decision to shift the subject of his film to be about something that he did feel like he had the authority to comment on: his expat experience and his own emotional turmoil. While the documentary’s subject matter still revolved around Art Basel: Hong Kong, Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window became a film that was centered around suggestion and mood, rather than declarative statements. Instead of being the “authoritative” documentary on Hong Kong’s art scene, Leave the Bus took on a lighter tone–one that balanced the things he learned about the city’s artists and his own experiences as an outsider.
Ahead of its world premiere in SXSW’s Visions screening section on March 9, we asked director Andrew Hevia about the inspirations behind the making of the film and his takeaways from the Hong Kong art scene.
What does the title, Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window, mean to you?
I started collecting unusual signs while living in Hong Kong on Instagram (@HeyLookSigns) and the title came from one I found on a city bus, that in turn inspired our poster. There’s a certain ‘found poetry’ aspect to it that I just love. To me, it’s about escapism and finding meaning in the moments that would otherwise be overlooked.
Why did you choose Hong Kong to be the location of your film? What drew you there?
I went to Hong Kong specifically because of a contemporary art fair called Art Basel. The Hong Kong edition had recently launched and I was interested in the way that the sudden influx of money and high profile artists and collectors was affecting the local artists. I spent the early years of my career in Miami and saw first hand how the Miami Beach Edition of Art Basel had precipitated a seismic shift in Miami’s cultural output. I was eager to see if Hong Kong’s cultural community would follow a similar trajectory.
What is it like being an expat filmmaker in a foreign city? Did you run into any difficulties or obstacles during the making of this film?
I did! That’s pretty much the entire narrative of the movie. It’s about the difficulties and obstacles I ran into while trying to make the film I originally set out to make.
According to articles published by Fordham News and the Knight Foundation, the initial goal of the film was to cover the burgeoning art scene in Hong Kong, particularly Art Basel: Hong Kong. However, a closer look at the synopsis shows that Leave the Bus is a more personal film than what was first proposed. What caused that shift in focus?
Before I landed in Hong Kong, I knew I wanted to make a film set in the art world that didn’t just explain why the art we were looking at was ‘good’ or ‘interesting,’ but I didn’t know what form that would ultimately take. I met with a lot of artists and drew inspiration from the city as much as possible. Over time, the goal became telling a story that was emotionally true and reflected the art I found in Hong Kong as I imperfectly understood and experienced it.
We’ve noticed that you have a YouTube channel which has a number of small vlogs about your day-to-day life in Hong Kong. Do you think this film is, in a sense, an extension of those vlogs on your channel?
I love that you watched those videos. The answer is yes, absolutely. When I first arrived, I thought I would make regular, playful vlogs while also making a more conventional documentary about Hong Kong artists. After a few weeks they stared to merge and Leave the Bus is the result.
This film’s goal started off with a lot of overlap with one of your previous films about Art Basel: Miami Beach. How different was the experience between working on these two films?
The first documentary, called Rising Tide: A Story of Miami Artists, was produced for public television. I’m very proud of it but it’s a conventional survey style TV doc. Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window is probably the exact opposite of that, and in a sense it’s a direct response to my experience making that first film. On Leave the Bus, I leaned away from all the things you’re “supposed to do” in a documentary. I conducted no on camera interviews, I didn’t shoot ‘b-roll’ and plaster it over sound bytes to create the illusion of a continuous moment, and I didn’t artificially construct a sense of authority. Instead, I acknowledged my total lack of authority in the context of Hong Kong and Hong Kong’s art scene and built a character out of myself, while rarely appearing on camera. In Miami, I had the home field advantage. I grew up in the city and knew from the jump how I was going to navigate that story. In Hong Kong, I was a complete outsider. So on Leave the Bus, I embraced that experience.
How were you inspired by the local art scene and your unfamiliar settings in Hong Kong, if at all?
The movie itself is the best answer to this question. I was consistently inspired by the artists I met and the city itself. The film is my attempt to articulate that inspiration. In fact, the evolution of the film from a straight documentary about an art fair into the unconventional, deeply personal film that it is – robot narrator and all – is really the best example I can give you.
In an interview with Fordham, you mentioned how you noticed that cities like New York, London, and even Miami had their culture shaped by the art scene. After working on Leave the Bus, do you believe that Hong Kong is experiencing that “same shift”?
I think culture goes both ways–it is shaped by and helps shape the communities in which it exists. There’s definitely a lot going on in Hong Kong outside the strictly art sphere–there are political, economic and demographic changes that are having real impacts on the city and those changes are reflected in the art. From Samson Young’s stunningly immersive art experience that features in the film to Au Hoi Lam‘s quiet and delicate work, the artists in Hong Kong are building something wholly unique from what has occurred in those other cities.
Do you have any ideas about what your next film is going to be about? What other art scenes around the world have piqued your interest?
I recently made a trip to Cuba and was absolutely floored by the art I saw there, although I’m not sure that art will be the subject of the next film. I’m getting married this summer and I’ve become fascinated by the idea of combining families, each with their own elaborate history, in our case, of exile. So the next film will be an intimate look at historical family trauma and romantic love, framed around my wedding and told through excerpts from my actual wedding video. The goal is to make something I’ve never seen before: a wedding video strangers would actually want to watch.
Are there any people that you would like to thank for the making of this film?
So many! The Fulbright program was extremely generous and gave me the opportunity to live abroad and make the film in the first place, for which I’m eternally grateful. My executive producer Dennis Scholl not only wrote my recommendation for Fulbright, he’s been a guiding hand and mentor for many years. Bonnie Chan Woo, also an Executive Producer, has been a tireless and early champion and a great ally in Hong Kong. Carlos David Rivera, my editor and creative producer, was instrumental in shaping the movie and pushed me to make this as personal a film as possible. I’d also like to thank all the artists I met in Hong Kong who so generously let me into their lives, whether they appeared in the final cut or not.
You can catch the world premiere of Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window on March 9, 2019 at SXSW. It is in competition for the Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award.
*Quotations in the introduction of this article were taken directly from the Director’s Statement.
Follow Andrew Hevia on Twitter @andrew_hevia
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu and Piter Balayan via email in February 2019.