Coming back to Rotterdam Film Festival where he presented his short “A Bright Summer Day” only two years ago, Chinese director Lei Lei is ready to expand his audience, he tells Variety. Combining audio narration with animation and archive footage, in “Silver Bird and Rainbow Fish” – sold internationally by Asian Shadows and previously known as “Ningdu” – he creates a personal collage about his family’s – and China’s – turbulent past, with clay puppet heads obscuring faces in faded photographs.

“I have been using old photographs in my previous films too, but this time, I didn’t want them to convey too much information. Usually, you look at them and your mind starts to wander: ‘Who is this guy? What’s the relationship between these people?’ I covered their faces to make it easier for the audience to come into Lei Lei’s world and see it all through my eyes,” he says.

As his father and grandfather proceed to recount the events that often forced them apart, Lei Lei wanted to leave some space for imagination, introducing bright colors and humor to the narrative that frequently takes a heartbreaking turn.

“Some of their stories can be harsh, but it always feels like they are telling a joke. I think this lightness comes directly from these interviews,” he says.

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Lei Lei Courtesy of Lei Lei

“They both went through a lot, but my generation doesn’t care much for history. We don’t learn from it and while we may listen to what they say, we don’t feel the pain. I haven’t experienced these things, so I can rebuild it all in my mind. For some reason, seeing all these bright colors makes you understand the hardship.”

It’s not the first time Lei Lei has turned to his family for answers and, he jokes, probably not the last. In his feature debut “Breathless Animals,” shown in Berlin, he listened to his mother, opening up about her youth. Recently, together with Chai Mi, he presented a two-channel installation at Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah Biennale, featuring family videos from the 1990s.

“I think it’s because of my background. I teach at California Institute of the Arts, I travel a lot, I go to festivals. I started to think: ‘Who am I? What’s my identity?’ Through this process I understood my family better, but also myself. I understood why I am here and why I am making these films.”

Lei Lei interviewed his grandfather in 2012. When he passed away, he decided to have the same conversation with his father and include them both in the film, as well as brief moments in between the recordings, the jokes and the mistakes.

“Sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a filmmaker is not a liar. Maybe he edited out something he didn’t like? I wanted to keep the ‘mistakes’ because they bring personality to these voices. You can’t see us but you understand it’s me and my father, sitting in the same room, having these conversations together,” he observes.

“I didn’t ask them about the whens and the wheres, I focused on keywords: ‘bicycle,’ ‘dreams,’ ‘tree.’ This way, they weren’t restricted in their answers. I am dealing with my family here, so why would the audience be interested in that? People from Berlin or South Korea, why would they care about Chinese history in the 1950s? I found out that when you focus on such details, on that bicycle, which my grandfather has been mentioning so often, that’s what people connect with.”

While his work tends to be described as everything from creative documentary to visual art, Lei Lei wants to continue merging different techniques.

“So many filmmakers, especially in animation, tend to stick to what they know. But I am not restricted by the industry, so it’s all about building a structure between the image and the sound. When I was showing this film as a work in progress, one of the mentors told me: ‘It’s not animation, it’s not a documentary. What do you think you are doing?!’ Well, I truly love cinema, so at this point I am just doing my best.”