Yu Gu is a multinational filmmaker and visual artist creating documentaries centered around identity, social justice and migration. Born in China, Gu said she was constantly surrounded by artists in art studios while she lived in China. Her family then immigrated to Canada where she grew up. Gu was the last speaker in the 2022 Diverse Perspectives in Digital Media & Design series.
“It’s this responsibility as a storyteller to not only tell the truth of our stories but to share and explore what that really means and where there is a lack of knowledge,” Gu said. “For example, I don’t really understand exactly what my grandparents went through or what my parents went through, but through my exploration of that, that creates this kind of new artistic life that comes out of their past stories.”
After Gu graduated from the University of Southern California’s film school, her first film was a personal documentary about growing up in China. The documentary trailer showed Gu’s grandparents and scenes of her hometown. The video ends with her grandparents asking Gu rhetorical questions. Gu was asked what question she resonated with the most.
“For me, the most poignant question is, do you know what it’s like for a family to be split apart,” Gu said. “I think it’s poignant because it happened in my grandparent’s generation. My grandfather was basically taken away and imprisoned in a labor camp for two decades. My dad grew up without really knowing him and then for us, my dad, my parents and I all immigrated to Canada. So, we have been separated from my family in China for so long and there’s so much trauma and love there that it’s really difficult to articulate through words and language.”
After her first film, Gu said she transitioned to telling stories about mainstream culture. She focused her next documentary on Arthur Chu, who was known for his winning streak on the game show “Jeopardy.” While she was in college, Gu worked for her school’s football team. That was when she discovered that cheerleaders in the National Football League were largely marginalized and less-than minimum wage.
“So I think in the making of those two films, I really came up against a sort of interface with these hierarchies in cinematic language when it comes to documentary,” Gu said. “For me, as I mentioned before, I came from a background of visual arts. A lot of documentary filmmakers come from a background of journalism which I really didn’t know that much about. For me, it was really about following my curiosity, creativity telling these stories so that was an opportunity for me to explore certain tropes.”
Gu added that being an independent filmmaker not only allows her freedom to pursue topics that she is passionate about, but also allows her to produce it based on her judgment. Though documentaries are on the rise, there’s a difference when artists get more freedom to create their own work versus working under streaming services, according to Gu. At the same time, she noted that it’s important for filmmakers of color to be heard on these platforms and to challenge them.
“As an Asian American, I’m seen as a minority. There’s this immense pressure to represent and fight for representation but for me, representation is just a tool. It’s not the end goal because what are we trying to represent and how can we make space for those things in this place. The idea of not always needing to translate oneself into this other culture to show or express oneself in one’s community in all its nuance and complication. Even though other people may not understand or something that is familiar to them.”Yu Gu, multinational filmmaker and visual artist
She often turns to film festivals as opportunities to expand her audiences. According to Gu, the filmmaking industry can force filmmakers to stay in one genre. However, Gu aspires to make films that she’s passionate about while showing the different sides of herself and her work. The last trailer Gu showed was about migrant workers in Jamaica singing and working as fruit farmers.
“I think it’s important for me personally to continue to develop form and how I can experiment with this kind of language and a different type of richness and diversity in this industry,” Gu said. “I think the medium really is the message because I think if you’re really stuck with one type of film, one type of way of telling the story, you’re really gonna be reinforcing the lines of power and hierarchy that already exist in our society and culture.”
One piece of advice she gave to the audience was to find a community that supports what they feel passionate about. Gu said during 2020 she was inspired by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement to find communities she can collaborate with. She stated that finding people to collaborate with is important because documentaries require a lot of effort. Forming communities can often inspire ideas to be shared.
“People will question you undoubtedly throughout your career,” Gu said. “Everything you do, everything you decide to make, people will be questioning you and I think you have to hold your own and have to be open to thinking outside of the box. That’s different than letting others take you down and letting others direct where you’re going. It’s being open, but at the same time, knowing who you are and what you want.”