Born in Beijing, before escaping to London and then Los Angeles for high school, NYU-educated Zhao eventually found her way to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where she made her first two features, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (which premiered at Sundance in 2015) and “The Rider” (nominated for four Film Independent Spirit Awards).
“I knew I was searching for something I couldn’t find in New York City, looking for stories I want to tell,” she says. “I grew up in big cities my whole life, and in my late 20s, I just felt like I was looking for something else.”
Raised an atheist, Zhao was drawn to the sense of spirituality practiced in the American heartland. Plus, armed with an undergraduate degree in American politics, she was fascinated by the legacy of the Lakota people, who had suffered so greatly at Wounded Knee.
Zhao spent three years and more than 30 drafts on “Songs,” receiving significant support from the Sundance Institute’s various grants and labs along the way. It was during that stretch that she met Brady Jandreau, a Lakota ranch hand and horse enthusiast who had never acted before, but agreed to appear in her sensitively rendered debut.
“The Indian cowboy is such a uniquely American contradiction,” says Zhao, who based “The Rider” on Jandreau’s personal experience — namely, a rodeo accident so severe that mounting another horse could mean the difference between life and death. “I had been writing different scripts for him to be in, but everything felt forced. Then he got hurt, and it was like a lightning strike. I realized this kid is literally risking his life to keep his identity.”
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Zhao hasn’t finished with the Lakota just yet, planning another feature designed to deepen and question the portrayals of Native Americans in the media. “I joke that this is my prairie trilogy,” she says. “I’d been working on this script for about two years before [the protests at] Standing Rock broke out.”