TV & Film alumni leave Sundance with a win


Compelling Scenes: (Left) The Exiles focuses on Yan Jiaqi, Wu’er Kiaxi, and Wan Runan (Left to right), who were exiled from China after the Tiannanmen Square protests of 1989. (Right) Filmmaker Christine Choy worked to reconnect with the dissidents after she lost contact with them over 30 years ago. Photos courtesy of The Exiles/Christine Choy & The Exiles/Connor K. Smith

Anna Marquardt, co-a&e editor

As he submitted his film, The Exiles, to the Jan. 2022 Sundance Film Festival, cinematographer Connor Smith recalled the years of hard work that went into the film. The Exiles won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition category, and Smith was ecstatic that others loved watching his film as much as he loved working on it.

Smith, who graduated from South in 2012, began filming The Exiles as Director of Cinematography in 2016 alongside his former New York University (NYU) classmates, Ben Klein and Violet Columbus. The film follows their former Professor Christine Choy as she works to reconnect with the three subjects of a documentary she had started filming in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing, China, Smith explained.

“Christine Choy was one of [Ben, Violet, and my] favorite professors and happened to be a legendary documentary filmmaker, and we thought we [could] make a movie about her and it would be really fun,” Smith said. “As we started shooting, she eventually gave us access to this footage she shot in 1989 for a film that she never finished, and that is where our project really took off, because we set out to finish her only unfinished film.”

Filming The Exiles often required Smith and his team to travel to many different locations, such as Shanghai and Taiwan, to track down Choy’s original documentary subjects. In the five years that the documentary was being filmed, Choy was able to find and film with Wu’er Kaixi, Yan Jiaqi, and Wan Runan, the exiled Chinese dissidents who Choy’s incomplete documentary had focused on over 30 years prior, Smith explained. These individual were forced by the Chinese government to leave China because of their involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

“It took [five] years to track these people down [and] figure out what our movie was about,” Smith said. “We’re just honored to tell their story and we hope that our film can get their story out there and inspire others.”

For one particularly impactful moment in the film, Smith enlisted the help of his friend Dan Chmielinski, whom he had met at South and has remained great friends with since, he shared. Chmielinski, who graduated from South in 2012, created a melodic sequence for the scene by compiling a series of audible tones that Choy included at the beginning of all of her footage from 1989, he explained.

“The end result was super effective,” Chmielinski said. “[It] just really gives you an idea of how much footage she actually had.”

Chmielinski credits his love for film scoring to Smith, so he was honored to be a part of this film with him. The first film he had ever scored was Smith’s first feature film, which was made during the pair’s senior year of high school, and it solidified his love for the storytelling aspect of music, Chmielinski shared.

“Connor is someone that I have just respected for the longest time,” Chmielinski

said. “[The first film I had scored] really made me think, ‘Wow, this is absolutely a [big] part of my life and something that I want to pursue,’ so [this film is] just full circle.”

Cinematographer Kevin Mathein, who graduated from South in 2013, met Smith in 2010 through South’s TV program, where they worked on many projects together. Mathein loved the opportunity to work with Smith again during filming for The Exiles as an additional cinematographer, as he has always found it fun to collaborate with his peers in a professional setting.

“It is really exciting that I was able to work on a project like this with friends,” Mathein said. “When you’re working with people that you grew up with, it is exciting when somebody has a project to dive in on.”