This edition of Who Makes Millersville Special features Dr. Changfu Chang, a filmmaker and professor in Millersville University’s communication & theatre department.
Q: How long have you been teaching at Millersville University?
A: Thirteen years.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: China (or 中國).
Q: What is your favorite class to teach? Why?
A: I like teaching TV I, an editing intensive course that focuses not only on useful technical skills, but also on artistic decisions and creations in the process of storytelling. I also like to teach TV II, which is an advanced course for our students to produce their portfolio pieces. As a scholar who also engages in traditional scholarship, I derive great joy from teaching intercultural communication, which is one of my research areas
Q: What made you decide to become a professor?
A: I guess I had no choice. With a Ph.D. in communication, what else could and can you do? Actually, my wife would be a better person to answer this one. She often says: “No wonder you want to be a teacher, because just about anyone you meet, you will strike a conversation, blah, blah, blah, and before you know it, you are talking about education and how important it is to receive a good education!”
Q: How many documentaries have you directed? What are they about?
A: I have lost the exact count, probably around 20. The documentaries cover a diverse range of subjects such as lives of Chinese women, education, illegal immigration, illicit trade and multicultural issues. In the past 14 years, I have devoted my major efforts to the production of a series of films on international adoption.
Q: What is the focus of the film you are working on titled “Ricki’s Promise”?
A: I’m sure the sightings of multicultural families in the U.S. are quite familiar to all of us. In the last two decades, American families have adopted about 100,000 Chinese children (predominantly girls). Almost without exception, these children have no knowledge of their birth parents or other biological information. As they come of age, the desire to know their past and connect with their roots gets ever stronger. Only several dozen are “lucky” enough to have found their birth families. “Ricki’s Promise” features the 18-year-old title character’s return to China to live with her birth family, to face her past and fears and to reflect upon her identity and choices.
Q: On average, how much time do you spend filming during the year?
A: Interestingly, I don’t spend much time “filming.” The real filming (field production portion) is relatively short for a given documentary. The bulk of time is devoted to preproduction (e.g., conducting research, developing funding strategies and making production schedules) and postproduction (e.g., reviewing footage, working on the script and editing the project). The entire process is extremely time-consuming and at times frustrating. It usually takes three to five years to complete a piece. Take “Ricki’s Promise,” for example. It is now the third year in the making. I probably spend somewhere between 600 to 1,000 hours a year (not counting countless dreams in which I felt I was also working on the project).
Q: How do you deal with a low budget for your films?
A: Independent filmmakers rely on a variety of resources to fund their projects. Over the years, I have been able—lucky enough—to cover my production expenses through small grants, donations, film sales and more painfully by “robbing my bank”—my own personal savings.
It would be seriously remiss of me not to mention, in particular, the support I have received from Millersville University, in particular: from our faculty grants committee, from my deans (formerly Dr. John Short and now Dr. Diane Umble) and from my department chair and colleagues.
Q: What message are you trying to relay to adoptive parents?
A: In short, I want to help the adoptive community and the general public to understand who these children from China are and what unique issues they face as they construct and negotiate their identities. One such issue, for example, is that some of the adopted children were not abandoned by their birth parents. Sadly, they were forced into orphanages as a result of China’s One-Child Policy, or were kidnapped and sold to orphanages for international adoption.
Q: What was it like to be able to take students with you to China to help film “Ricki’s Promise”?
A: Food is always big in Chinese culture, [I would ask them] “Chicken feet; give you five bucks if you eat them. Will you do it? How about a bite of the snake meat for 10 bucks; scorpion, huh, yummy, for 20 bucks?” That’s the crazy part. On a serious note, for my students, nothing can beat the experience of being immersed in a different culture and interacting with a different people, and at the same time honing their production skills. For my students, the production experience becomes a truly multicultural education and a transformative journey to global citizenry.
Q: How big of a role do students play in your films?
A: In the course of the production of a documentary, students play a variety of roles, such as assistant producers and directors, cinematographers and editors. Sometimes, they even serve as my “supervisors” to make sure I stay focused and on track! I feel profoundly blessed and privileged to have the opportunities to work with these talented and motivated students. As much as they learn from me, I’m also on the receiving end, being inspired and amazed by their creative ideas.
Q: What are you involved in on campus?
A: I usually get involved in two ways. One is through my participation in committee activities. Right now I serve on a number of committees including the President’s Commission on Cultural Diversity and Inclusion. The other is through my support to students working on various campus projects. In the spring semester, I supervised one group of five students who, in collaboration with the sociology and anthropology department, produced a promotional video for SWAN, a Lancaster-based nonprofit organization that provides free music education to kids whose parents are incarcerated. And in the fall semester, I’m supervising two students who are producing a series of short videos for the music department.
Q: What is your greatest accomplishment?
A: Receiving a Ph.D. It’s very special to me. I’m the first generation in my family to receive any kind of formal education. My parents didn’t go to school for a single day, and they remain illiterate to this day. They didn’t even comprehend what a doctorate is. I would explain to them: “It’s like a certificate that shows that you have reached the very top as far as education goes.” They would look at me in awe and with pride: “So, it’s like a king or an emperor, at the top?”
Q: What college(s) did you attend? What did you major in?
A: Yancheng Teachers College (China) for undergraduate majoring in English; Nanchang University (China) for a graduate program in world literature; Purdue University for a doctoral program in communication.
Q: Any life lessons you’ve learned?
A: I’ve learned some life lessons in a hard way—in a very hard way. A while back in China, due to my involvement in the 1989 Students’ Movement, I was kicked out of a doctoral program in China, and for some time, I couldn’t find a decent job. I can still feel the pain of feeling ostracized by Chinese society. In general, I’m easygoing (sometimes comic) with a good temperament. Here is the proof: In our 23 years of marriage, my wife and I have never quarreled, not even once. However, when it’s a matter of principle, I can be very stubborn (and stupid), like Cervantes’s Don Quixote, or Hemingway’s Santiago. To this day, I still don’t have much patience for dishonesty or hypocrisy or various forms of discrimination. And I don’t mince words, either. (Isn’t it ironic for being a communication professor?) So, I still find myself in situations where I sometimes feel alienated and ostracized. Teaching my students and working on my films, with the love and support from my wonderful family and friends, however, helps me keep my sanity and maintain a positive outlook.