Featured Member:
Anna Sophie Loewenberg

Written by Neha Kaul  

Loewenberg reporting in Beijing, 2013

From journalism to documentary to the world of fiction and screenwriting, Anna Sophie Loewenberg draws connections between her family history and modern day China, telling stories about displacement, connection, women, and the journey to self-discovery. 

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In 2000, aspiring filmmaker and journalist Anna Sophie Loewenberg walked into her office at Beijing Scene magazine ready for another long day covering arts and culture in China, only to discover that everything had been cleared out. China’s Ministry of State security had raided the office and shut the magazine down. Overnight, their scene became bare. 

Throughout her experience in documentary filmmaking—including hit shows like Sexy Beijing—and print journalism, Loewenberg came to know that a sudden shut-down was standard procedure for working in creative spaces in China under the threat of government censorship. The uncertainty did not keep Loewenberg from falling in love with Beijing. 

“There’s this idea about China that people are censored and therefore all forms of free expression are squelched and that’s the whole story. On one hand, yes censorship is an important part of the story, but I’m interested in all of the creative spaces in-between, in the extraordinary individuals who are making films, music, and art, despite the challenges,” she said

“There’s a real generosity of spirit in relationships in China and this comes out in creative collaborations whether it's filmmaking, journalism, or music.” 

While Loewenberg is now located in the Bay Area after moving back to the US in 2017, China has left its imprint on her work. In recent years, she has changed paths from documentary to the world of fiction and screenwriting. 

She is interested in telling China-set stories about displacement, connection, women and the journey to self-discovery. Loewenberg is currently on a development team for a TV series with a Chinese production -- her target audiences are young, bilingual and cross-cultural. 

Loewenberg’s connection to China extends all the way back to 1933, when her father was born in Hamburg during the rise of Hitler. Her grandfather worked as a psychiatrist at a German hospital.  He lost his job and was not allowed to work as a Jew. 

This left her grandparents with no choice but to pick up and leave when her father was only six weeks old.

“I think that becoming a mother myself really allowed me to understand the weight of their decision, what it meant to pick-up with a six-week-old baby, board a ship and travel halfway across the world,” said Loewenberg. 

Her family fled to Shanghai, where they lived until the Japanese attacked in 1937. They were uprooted once again and came to the US. “I never had the chance to meet my grandparents, I just had the photographs my grandfather had taken of my father’s childhood there,” she recalled

Anna Sophie’s father and grandfather -- Peter and Richard Loewenberg, Shanghai 1936

“For him they were these vague impressions of his early childhood. I felt drawn to go to China and see it for myself. So many of us have stories about diaspora. I was trying to put the pieces together, I was asking:

Who are we? Who am I?”            

Loewenberg moved to China in 1996 after receiving her undergraduate degree in modern literature at University of California Santa Cruz. 

She was always writing short stories and poetry and published a few pieces before she dove into print journalism.

“I didn’t speak a word of Chinese but when I arrived, there was something there that felt like home,” she recalled. Within months of her arrival, she was speaking Mandarin and becoming involved with China’s burgeoning rock music scene. She started a band, which was one of the few girl-fronted punk rock bands in China at the time.

Loewenberg, Sabay Lore and Qiu Zubin of the band “Bieniu” play a show in Beijing, 2000

This interest in music led Loewenberg to write about the Chinese punk scene for Maximumrocknroll, an SF-based punk rock zine with an international audience.  Hers was the first report they ever had from mainland China. She included a Beijing address at the bottom of the article, for which there was no online distribution, just print and snail mail. 

“After the article came out, we got around 50 handwritten letters from bands and readers from all over the world, from places like Mexico, Peru, Indonesia,” said Loewenberg. “It was the first article I ever wrote, so it made a huge impression on me about the power of documenting creative subcultures in China.”

Loewenberg and some others from the punk scene collaborated to create the zine that led her to Beijing Scene, the first English language culture and entertainment magazine in post-Mao China.

“One day I just showed up at Beijing Scene. I brought my little punk rock zine and article for Maximumrocknroll and approached the editor-in-chief Scott Savitt. He loved our photo-copied punk zine, and that’s how I got the job,” recalled Loewenberg. 

Loewenberg worked there from 1998 until the magazine was shut down in 2000 and then returned to the US. 

She went to New York to attend Columbia University and received her master’s degree in journalism before 

returning to Beijing in 2006. 

“I went back with a more focused sense of purpose. I wanted to use my voice in a new way, to be bolder. That’s when I picked up a camera,” explained Loewenberg.

Loewenberg joined Jeremy Goldkorn, her one time editor at Beijing Scene, and Luke Mines, a friend from college, to help run the production company, Goldmines Film. They were mostly involved in documentary and corporate service work, but Goldkorn was already running Danwei media at the time. He and Mines had launched a web series called the Hard Hat Show. Goldkorn now runs the China-focused news, information, and Business services platform, SupChina.

Loewenberg interviewing Beijingers, 2008

“When I got there, they had this idea: ‘Let’s launch something for this new platform called YouTube.’ I had never heard of it,” said Loewenberg. All social media and video sharing platforms in China became censored around 2009 and still are now but at the time they were not.

They created three to four different shows. Their most popular series was called Sexy Beijing, a genre-bending documentary-based experiment, which they launched in 2006.

People often stopped Loewenberg and told her that she looked like “that girl from Sex and the City” since the show was popular among young Chinese women in the late ‘90s. 

“One thing about Beijingers…they can be very blunt and curious,” said Loewenberg.

Walking around as a single woman in her 30s, Loewenberg received inquiries in the street by people

—especially older women and grandmothers — who were curious about where her kids were and if she was married. Shocked to learn that she was single, their curiosity ended up sparking the idea to create a Sex and the City spoof set in Beijing.

“I decided, let’s just turn this around on people and ask them about their love lives. Let’s find out about how all these people on the street found love,” recalled Loewenberg. 

Sexy Beijing consisted of a mix of street interviews and scriptwriting. “It was satire, it was informative, it was comedy, it was all in service of telling stories—stories about gender, identity, women, innovators, and rule-breakers in Beijing,” explained Loewenberg.

“That kind of thing could only happen in Beijing in those days because there was so much space for it.”

In Sexy Beijing, they connected with people on the margins and dug into topics of gender, feminism, sexuality, relationships, marriage, courting, identity, migrants who were displaced, etc. The project began with their first episode, “Looking for Double Happiness,” and their channel includes stories about LGBTQ pioneers in episodes like “Siberian Butterfly,” and music with episodes like “Women Make Noise.” Their channel has sixty episodes and almost twenty million views. 

At first the decision to appear on camera in the show felt like a huge risk to Loewenberg. She remembered editing the very first piece and thinking, “I’m totally sticking my neck out there and I have no idea what the response will be. It was risky, but I feel like sometimes that’s what you have to do. Even in screenwriting, you have to be willing to put it out there and share an emotional truth.” 

Loewenberg and Luke Mines interviewing Beijjingers, 2008

Loewenberg reporting in Beijing 2013

In turn, the people that Loewenberg interviewed matched her vulnerability. “I’ve been surprised at how forthcoming people are with sharing their experiences. On an interpersonal level, people are warm and generous.” 

“If you make a new friend in Beijing and they invite you to dinner, that dinner is happening. You’ve probably made a friend for life. If you’re in Los Angeles, 50 people might say it’s great to meet you, let’s have dinner, and you’ll be eating dinner alone that night,” said Loewenberg. “In the current climate it’s even more important to tell stories about the human side of China because right now China-U.S. relations are at an all-time low.

Here, public attitudes toward China are very negative. On the Chinese side there’s definitely a surge in patriotism, nationalism, and some anti-foreign sentiment.”

Loewenberg went on to film news and documentaries with NPR, VPRO, and Tianjin Television. She observed that during her filmmaking experiences, there was a dearth of women behind the camera and there were rarely other women for her to shoot with.

“As I get older, I look at my younger self and I’m able to see clearly how, as a woman, I often underestimated myself, that I made myself small, that I felt that I couldn’t do it. Even when beginning my career in journalism, I noticed that as a young woman in these environments, there was always someone telling me how to perceive the world, how to see things, how to tell the story.

It was important for me as a woman to get in there, get on the ground, talk to people, learn the language, and trust myself, trust my own instincts about what the story is and how to make sense of it and not let other people dictate the narrative,” she told me. 

“I spent the first half of my career really wanting to lean on other people to dictate the story for me. I work best in collaboration, so it’s been a huge treat getting to know the women at WIFSFBA. I find it both inclusive and creative,” explained Loewenberg. 

Loewenberg is a member of WIFSFBA’s Script Incubator program and is designing the WIFSFBA mentorship program with board member Diane Walsh. Catch a reading of Loewenberg’s short film about her father’s experiences as a child in wartime Shanghai at a WIFSFBA table read on November 11. 

Being part of a filmmaking community is important to her.

 “It’s that can-do spirit that can help us to make great work,” she said

“I’ve written a few shorts since I came to the Bay Area and if I want to make those shorts, I need the village.” 

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Neha Kaul
Neha Kaul is an aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker based in the East Bay. She graduated with an English degree from Cal Poly SLO. She currently works remotely as a writer’s assistant and researcher for screenwriter Andrew Ondrejcak. As a WIFSFBA member and volunteer, Neha writes for the blog and participates in the Script Incubator program. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, drawing, poetry and film photography.