Yu Gu is a multinational filmmaker and visual artist who creates documentaries focusing on identity, social justice and migration. Born in China, Gu said she was constantly surrounded by artists in art studios while living in China. Her family then immigrated to Canada where she grew up. Gu was the final speaker for the 2022 Diverse Perspectives in Digital Media & Design series.
“It’s that responsibility as a storyteller to not only tell the truth about our stories, but also to share and explore what it really means and where there is a knowledge gap,” Gu said. “For example, I don’t understand exactly what my grandparents went through or what my parents went through, but through my exploration of that, it creates this kind of new artistic life that stems from their past stories.”
After graduating from film school at the University of Southern California, Gu Gu made his first film, a personal documentary about his childhood in China. The trailer for the documentary showed Gu’s grandparents and scenes from his hometown. The video ends with her grandparents asking Gu rhetorical questions. Gu was asked which question resonated with him the most.
“For me, the most poignant question is, do you know what it’s like for a family to be separated,” Gu said. “I think it’s poignant because it happened in my grandparents’ generation. My grandfather was basically taken and imprisoned in a labor camp for two decades. My father grew up not really knowing him and then for us, my father, my parents and I all immigrated to Canada. So we’ve been separated from my family in China for so long and there’s so much trauma and love there that it’s really hard to articulate through words and language.
After her first film, Gu said she moved on to telling stories about mainstream culture. She has focused her next documentary on Arthur Chu, who was known for his winning streak on the game show “Jeopardy.” While in college, Gu worked for her school’s soccer team. It was then that she discovered that National Football League cheerleaders were largely marginalized and below minimum wage.
“So I think when making these two films, I really bumped into a kind of interface with these hierarchies in the language of filmmaking when it comes to documentaries,” Gu said. “For me, as I mentioned before, I come from a visual arts background. A lot of documentary filmmakers come from a background in journalism that I didn’t really know. For me, it was really about following my curiosity, my creativity in telling these stories, so it was an opportunity for me to explore certain tropes.
Gu added that being an independent filmmaker not only allows her to pursue subjects she is passionate about, but also allows her to produce it based on her judgment. Although documentaries are on the rise, there is a difference when artists have more freedom to create their own work compared to 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 am considered a minority. There’s this immense pressure to represent and fight for representation, but for me, representation is just a tool. That’s not the end goal, because what are we trying to represent and how do we make room for those things in this place. The idea of not always needing to translate into this other culture in order to show oneself or express oneself in one’s community in all its nuance and complexity. Even though other people may not understand or something familiar to them.
Yu Gu, multinational filmmaker and visual artist
She often turns to film festivals to expand her audience. According to Gu, the film industry can force filmmakers to stay within a genre. However, Gu aspires to make films that excite her 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 growers.
“I think it’s important for me personally to continue to develop the form and how I can experience that kind of language and a different kind of richness and diversity in this industry,” Gu said. “I think the medium is really the message because I think if you’re really stuck with one type of film, one type of way to tell the story, you’re really going to reinforce the lines of power and the hierarchy that already exist. in our society and our culture.
One piece of advice she gave to the audience was to find a community that supports what they are passionate about. Gu said that in 2020 she was inspired by the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement to find communities she could collaborate with. She said it’s important to find people to collaborate with because documentaries take a lot of effort. Forming communities can often inspire ideas to share.
“People will definitely question you throughout your career,” Gu said. “Everything you do, everything you decide to do, people will question you and I think you have to be tough and be open to thinking outside the box. It’s different from letting others get 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.