Recess interviews: Jessica Yu, documentary filmmaker
Jessica Yu is a director of documentary film, as well as of narrative film (Ping Pong Playa) and television (Parenthood, Grey’s Anatomy). Her film Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1997. A retrospective of her work and the world premiere of her newest documentary short, The Guide, will be shown at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Apr. 4 through 7 in downtown Durham. Recess writer Megan Rise spoke with Yu about her experience with documentary filmmaking and her personal style.
Recess: I’m excited for your work to be shown as the Full Frame Tribute this week. What should the audience expect from your films?
Jessica Yu: I think that what people will notice is that the subject matter and the style of the films being shown ranges a lot. Sometimes when you hear about a retrospective of someone’s work, there’s kind of a thematic continuity or stylistic exploration that’s very traceable, and I think in my work, it seems a little more eclectic. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s pretty noticeable.
R: You’ve incorporated animation and puppetry into several of your documentaries, including The Kinda Sutra and The Protagonist. How did your atypical approach affects your films and their reception?
JY: I made Breathing Lessons about Mark O’Brien, who had polio so he was living in severely restricted physical conditions. He was in an iron lung. He had very limited ability to move about the world, so making a film about him was a tremendous challenge. How do you create the sense of the richness of his inner life? I think that was the first lesson in finding ways to, what I call, “order off the menu.” If you have a severe restriction, it’s actually tremendously freeing because there is no set of guidelines for doing what you want to do. For that first film, I thought, “Why do we need to be restricted by the traditional materials of documentary filmmaking?” Especially when you’re telling someone’s biographical story. Unless someone is a media figure or a famous person, a lot of times you don’t have all the pieces that you would like to have, and there has to be some way to bring those pieces to life. I think from that it was a liberating type of lesson.
From there, like you mentioned, in The Protagonist there’s some animation and there’s some other kinds of fun storytelling pieces. In In the Realms of the Unreal, there’s a lot of animation. What I like is working with other kinds of artists, like animators or puppeteers and puppet creators. It’s kind of like working with a composer where you get real collaborative interaction to figure out how to do what you want to do, but then, it’s always a wonderful surprise when it comes back and it’s even better than you thought it would be. I like that process as well.
R: Your work is extremely diverse, to say the least. How do you decide what you’re going to make a film about?
JY: There’s always a lot of ideas floating around. People will bring things up, or someone will come up and suggest something that sounds perfectly good, but it’s usually ones where the idea sticks in your mind and your own curiosity starts to take over and you realize you can’t satisfy that curiosity any other way than by making a film. You need that personal curiosity to continue to propel a process which can take a long time. With Realms it was five years, so it’s kind of a necessary component.
R: Is that what happened with The Guide?
JY: The interesting thing about The Guide is that I was contacted about making a film about the Gorongosa Restoration Project. It’s a huge conservation project. They’re trying to revitalize and rebuild a national park in Mozambique, which is larger than Rhode Island. It’s an amazing place, and I think that there was a feeling that a lot of attention goes to the ecosystem and the flora and fauna. There needed to be some emphasis on the human side of the equation because if people aren’t involved and invested and included, then the chances of the long-term success of this project are pretty low.
The difficult thing was actually trying to figure out how you tell that story. We had the freedom to go through the process and see what came up, and Tonga, this young man, was helping us. Then as we got to know him a little better, it was like, I want to know what happens to this kid. I want to know what this experience is like for him, learning about what’s going on with the park and his feeling of what the people of the community experience on a daily basis. Somehow, he represents the hub of what everyone was trying to do because he was really bridging both worlds.
R: Your early films seem to play almost as character studies, but some of your more recent films also address environmental and social issues fairly directly. Is there any reason for this shift?
JY: With Last Call at the Oasis, I was approached about making a film about water. That was an unusual situation for me, but I was very excited about doing that because water is so visual from a filmmaking perspective, and that was appealing. Once we started researching, there was so much I was being surprised by, and not necessarily in a positive way, so there was a kind of curiosity momentum that started to build. I thought, “How come we don’t talk about these things? How come we don’t know this? How come this isn’t in the national debate?” We kept running into characters who are dealing with these growing crises on the ground. Through these characters, we could see what things we’re all going to be confronting, in one way or another, if we don’t have some plan or awareness. It was very different from the other films I’ve worked on, but again, the personal interest grew very quickly at the beginning.
R: What are you working on next?
JY: I’m working on a film right now about population. That’s a big, big subject, and it’s very story-based. It’s been a really interesting project so far, and very surprising. That’s a longer term project. I’ve also been very interested in making a film about Mad magazine, so that’s something that we’re hoping to push forward soon.