Chloé Zhao’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” at Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight

Chloe Zhao's "Songs My Brothers Taught Me" was selected at Cannes' Directors' Fortnight
In her directorial debut, she tells a story about a brother and sister on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Chloé Zhao, who directed the critically-acclaimed Songs My Brothers Taught Me that made waves at this year’s Sundance, is one of 19 selected to for the 47th annual Directors’ Fortnight program at the Cannes Film Festival, according to Variety. She also is one of the three women filmmakers to make the cut out of 1,623 feature-length film submissions, IndieWire reports.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao’s directorial debut, is a narrative that takes place on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Zhao is currently a student in NYU’s Graduate Film program and made the film outside of her coursework.

About 5 years ago, the filmmaker visited Pine Ridge for the first time. Home and belonging were themes that Zhao explored both in the film and in her own life. Zhao left China when she was 14 years-old and lived in England and many places in the U.S. “I never felt a connection to a place so strong that I can not just pack up and leave,” she said. She was fascinated by how close-knit the Pine Ridge community was and wanted to make a film about young people who choose to stay on, or don’t have a chance to leave, the reservation.

“Our standard of success—the one celebrated by mainstream society—is to go to college in the city and get a job there,” she says. “Not everyone gets to do that. I want to show that there are other ways.”

The film centers on a relationship with a brother and sister. Zhao spent months in Pine Ridge, and still often returns. Everyone you see onscreen, except for three people, are from Pine Ridge. Zhao filmed at real pow-wows, homecomings, rodeos and protests.

Zhao is very clear that this is not the definitive film about Pine Ridge and hopes her films shows the diversity of the Lakota people there. “I’m trying to show a group of unique and dynamic characters,” noting that mainstream media has generalized Native Americans for a long time.

Zhao says that attending a women’s college as an undergraduate taught her to be unafraid to speak up. “Women, especially Chinese women, are not raised that way,” Zhao said. While she started off wanting to tell a more “marketable” story, her film is ultimately a quiet meditation on life in the South Dakota plains. Zhao believes being a woman director allows her to tell stories from a unique perspective, even if that means not fitting into a male-dominated film world. “I think it’s very important for a woman to stay truthful to who she is and what she wants to do.”

Chloé Zhao talking with actor John Reddy during a scene in Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Photo by Eléonore Hendricks
Chloé Zhao talking with actor John Reddy during a scene in Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Photo by Eléonore Hendricks

Angela C. Lee, a producer of the film, is a former CAAM Fellow.


Read Chloé Zhao’s Director’s Statement.