Q&A: Ruby Yang - My Voice, My Life

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Arthur Tam speaks with the Academy Award-winning director Ruby Yang about her new documentary, My Voice, My Life, which looks into the lives of young Hongkongers discovering their identity

Hong Kong is not a city known for its documentaries. With a shrinking film industry that’s constantly hit with budget cuts, directors usually opt for safe, commercial, profit making films. Documentaries are simply too risky and more often than not, they don’t yield any sort of major return. And even if someone wanted to make a documentary, finding investors, distributors and screening venues can prove difficult. This however, hasn’t stopped Academy Award-winning director Ruby Yang, who releases her first Hong Kong based documentary on October 16, My Voice, My Life, which follows the lives of students who are underprivileged, disabled and suffering from low self-esteem, but who find their identity through musical theatre. Believe us, it’s a weepy tearjerker.

Yang is not afraid of exposing tough and difficult situations. After graduating with an MFA in film from the San Francisco Art Institute, she has almost made it her duty to bring a voice to and expose the under-represented and marginalised through her documentaries. A filmmaker with compassion, she spent 22 years in San Francisco, California, before uprooting herself, taking a chance, and moving to China to document an AIDS stricken village in the Yingzhou District of the Anhui province, China. The result was The Blood of Yingzhou District, which earned her an Oscar in 2006. Since then, Yang has released Tongzhi in Love in 2008, which shows homosexual men in China leading double lives with boyfriends outside of their marriage to women, which they maintain to fulfil their family duties. And in 2010, Yang was nominated for an Oscar for The Warriors of Qiuqiang, which depicted a group of villagers that fought against three chemical factories that were polluting and devastating their lands.

After spending eight years in the Mainland, Yang moved back to her native Hong Kong last year and was appointed as a distinguished fellow in the Humanities Department at the University of Hong Kong where she has spent time teaching as well as working on her newest project. As with her previous documentaries, Yang gets right to the heart of the issues that many young students face. My Life, My Voice, is poignant, heartfelt and her most relatable work to date. We sit down with the accomplished director at her office in HKU to talk abouther process, inspirations and the opportunity to work with Hong Kong’s youth.

Nice to meet you Professor Yang. Your newest film is quite a divergence from your previous works that were more…
Serious?

Well, yes. What was the experience like? And did you have to face new challenges?
Well I think all my films are about identity – a group of people who have voices that might not be heard, and about the changes in people’s lives. I think if you look at it, the themes are very similar. If you look at the children being affected by AIDS or the farmer who studies environmental law to save his village, you see a common thread emerging – the human spirit. This is what you can see in this film as well. It is the challenge of the human spirit, and it’s about humanity.

How emotionally different was it for you?
Of course when you’re dealing with very serious, very emotional subjects like children dying of AIDS versus young people finding themselves and their place in society, it’s very different. But I would say I’m equally moved by the connection between students and their parents and teachers. These are things that we constantly confront every day and those are things that I think are important to everyone.

How did you get involved with this project?
I’ve been in touch with the L Plus H Creations Foundation (a social enterprise that improves the lives of underprivileged youth through art) for a couple years. We wanted to work together on a project, so when they had this musical with these students, they asked me to make a documentary about it. I saw their first rehearsal and I noticed a student named Chi-lok. He’s one of the visually impaired students and I was very moved by him. I knew there was a story.

What resonated with you about the students from the Ebenezer School and Home for the Visually Impaired?

The courage in them. I didn’t realise how difficult it is for them to study because I hadn’t had any encounters with visually impaired students before and they have to study so many different types of braille for different subjects. And in just one afternoon, this one girl has to use all these different tools to get through one class. It’s extremely difficult. 

How many months did you have to spend filming?
The whole thing took over 90 days. And the post-production took a long time because we had so much footage – 500 hours of footage.

What criteria did the students have to meet in order to participate in this film?
They had a casting call and then they had to pass two auditions, but first the teacher had to recommend the student.

This sounds like some kind of idol competition.
It kind of is. The students needed some singing skills. At least to be on pitch. The students who could not sing well joined in other ways like building the set or helping with the wardrobe and makeup. So there were 50 people working backstage. So that’s 80 people in total. Quite a big group of students.

What was the biggest challenge in this documentary?

Trying to fit the story into a 90 minute film while having the stories of all the different characters flow together without any duplicating messages. It’s just about refining and balancing everything.

Students from third band schools (lower achieving schools) are often looked down upon. But from your experience, do you think any of those stereotypes hold true?
I think they are as smart, active and worldly as people from higher achieving academic schools. In fact I find they have conventional wisdom – they’re very street smart – and that’s what I found very charming. I liked that a lot.

Was it strange that there are some disabled students mixed with non-disabled students? One group is dealing with tangible disabilities while the other one is not.
I think that it is good because, I mean, the whole point about it is having the visually impaired students integrated into the mainstream society and for other students to get in touch with people with disabilities. Because very seldom do people encounter those with disabilities and I think it’s a good way to integrate both.

Kind of like mutually learning from each other.
Absolutely. It forces the students to really care for other people and it makes them more thoughtful and conscious of people living with disabilities. A lot of young people can be self-centered, so I think this is good training. 

What motivated you to step into the world of documentaries in the first place?

I like documentaries because they bring me to different situations. Real life situations that I otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to experience like the eight years I spent in China. What’s better than just experiencing life and talking to people about their lives?

What’s the difference in shooting a documentary here rather than the Mainland?
Here, as long as you get the permission from the person or place to shoot you just shoot – but in China that’s not the case. Even with the person’s permission, you might not be able to continue shooting because you might be touching on a sensitive topic, which can be stopped at any time.

So now that you’re based in Hong Kong does that mean you’ll pursue more issues dealing with Hong Kong?
Yes. There are many issues I’d like to explore, like ageing. And then another one might be about media coverage in Hong Kong or the environmental issues here. I think Hong Kong is quite behind in waste management for a city so metropolitan. Those are things that people don’t necessarily know about so I want to tackle them.

Do you think you have a further insight into how Hong Kong adolescents are now?

Yes. They suffer from attention deficit syndrome. I think most teens now are always distracted and on their mobile devices. They are very well protected and they have money to spend. Their allowance is pretty big, even though their parents are not that well off. And now they are more encouraged to gain other learning experiences.

What’s the general takeaway message you want the audience to take from this film?

I think some main themes are the importance of art and education. And also the importance of people connecting with each other, whether it’s parents and kids or teachers and students. And also connecting to the community, like bringing students together that are and are not disabled.

What was the best part of filming this documentary?

I got to be back in high school and hang out with students like I was one of them.

My Voice, My Life
Premieres Thu Oct 16.

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