‘I want to center marginalized experiences, to validate the diverse identities overshadowed in my childhood, to offer beauty and light in darkness.’ – Chinese Australian filmmaker Lydia Rui is driven to use her transnational background to help spread understanding and empathy.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Lydia to talk about her vision as a filmmaker and her second narrative short film, This Perfect Day – which will screen at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival later this month.
Q: This is an intimate and quietly powerful short film. Can you share your inspiration for ‘This Perfect Day’?
A: Thank you so much! Without giving it away, it’s a film borne of a personal seed — a premise I have considered for myself many times
Q: A lot of the film is spent in tight close-ups. Can you talk about the vision yourself and Alice Stephens (DP) had for the look of ‘This Perfect Day’?
A: I wanted to create a subjective experience that captured the heightened emotional stakes for Jules (played by Michelle Keating), this moment that they had been building up to. The claustrophobic close-ups are meant to place the viewer in their perspective and create that tension. Texture is important to me, so we tried to add grittiness through the use of aberrated lenses and dirtied foregrounds to create a sense of obscurity.
Although I storyboarded everything, I knew Alice’s documentary background and empathetic eye would intuitively be able to translate anything we needed to get on the fly —for example, when I was talking to the actors, Alice could get atmospheric cutaways for the edit. For the cool tonal palette, I shared a lot of references from Fish Tank (2009) and Winter’s Bone (2010) with Alice Stephens, Eleanora Steiner (production and costume designer), and Abe Wynen (colourist), which they then interpreted and expanded upon.
Q: Michelle Keating gives an incredibly nuanced performance to capture this moment of vulnerability for Jules. What was Michelle like to work with?
A: I first accosted Michelle in a public bathroom, two weeks before the shoot! It was one of those cosmic series of events that make you wonder if there really might be a ‘film god’.
I had seen a photo of Michelle on the casting website StarNow that morning, and ‘starred’ them. Then later that day I went to ACMI for my friend Abu Bakr Shawky’s screening of his debut, Yomeddine (2018), at Melbourne International Film Festival 2018. I saw Michelle in the foyer, though wasn’t sure at the time it was the same person I’d seen on StarNow — their hair was completely different. I noted to myself to approach them after the screening, in which they sat in front of me, but when the lights came on they were gone.
Then, after a long bathroom queue, they came out of the stall that I was about to enter! I stopped them there and then, lest they disappear again, and asked them for their number. I think they were a bit afraid of me at first! Then after Michelle read the script and saw the treatment, they said: “I am Julia!” After their audition, there was no question Michelle was meant to play Jules.
We had Michelle rehearse on separate days with Hannah, who plays their girlfriend, and Lee, who plays the store owner. Michelle was great with improv and had an innate understanding of the character. They also brought those amazing flame pants, the Einstein hoodie, and that shock of gorgeous blue hair. As Michelle said, they are playing a version of themselves.
Q: What does it feel like to have this film be selected for Tribeca in what is an extremely competitive year?
A: It felt unreal. We had made this film for the love of it, without expectations. The whole process, from first draft to completed film, took 8 weeks.
The entirety of the shop scenes, the bulk of the film, was shot in one day. So when I received an email from Ben Thompson, the shorts programmer, I couldn’t tell if it was a dream. I was only half-awake, and it was a few days before Christmas 2018. Then he called, all the way from New York to Melbourne, several hours later. We spoke for half an hour or so, he was just lovely — he reiterated just how many shorts he and co-programmer Sharon Badal had seen, the latter in the tens of thousands, and made me feel very special.
It’s a huge honour to be at Tribeca Film Festival, and it’s also great to see the effort they put in to gender parity this year. I have quite a few colleagues whom I’m happy to be sharing the festival roster with!
Q: I’ve heard incredible things about your documentary ‘This Is Yarra’. How do you reflect upon your journey with that film?
A: This Is Yarra is the first film I began out of NYU, and my first film in Australia. It’s been a wonderful journey — it World Premiered at DOC NYC, where it was the only Australian short selected at America’s largest Oscar®-qualifying festival, to an audience who for the most part were unaware of the South Sudanese presence in Australia.
It captures one of the last South Sudanese Australian National Basketball Association (SSANBA) tournaments — though we didn’t know it at the time, and we hope this is temporary. The documentary feels particularly important because it offers an empowering grassroots portrayal of a community that have contributed to their own and peripheral Australian culture. Although the Yarra Wild Beasts are predominantly South Sudanese, their influence extends beyond and is inclusive in nature. The film is shot predominantly on a Canon 5D, with some Arri Alexa footage from a friend’s borrowed camera, and was made possible with the generosity of our small, compassionate crew.
We had begun shooting in July 2016, but because it was a labour of love, actual shooting days and availability with our editor was limited. The wait was worth it — it’s been an enlightening and rewarding journey. The film has since had its National Premiere at the 28th Flickerfest International Short Film Festival, will play at the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, and has recently received an Australian Directors Guild Award Nomination for Best Documentary Short 2019.
Q: You traveled through North America and Europe as a videographer for Beyoncé Knowles’ Mrs. Carter World Tour in 2013-14. What did you take away from that experience?
A: Most importantly I took away the knowledge of the work ethic it takes to be of Beyoncé’s calibre. She works harder than anyone else I’ve ever seen, driven by a purposeful passion, and possesses an uncompromising courage that I hope to one day possess.
I also took away the realisation that, as much of a privilege it was to be her videographer, I ultimately want to direct and work with a team.
Q: Where does your interest in filmmaking come from? What made you want to follow this path?
A: I think unlike most filmmakers, I was not a young cinephile, nor had I ever studied photography. My passion for filmmaking likely arrived because I believe it is the most impactful conduit for sharing story and expanding empathy. I was originally a Major in Media, Culture, and Communications, taking classes in anthropology, philosophy, semiotics, linguistics, and classicism.
Then, in my sophomore year, I discovered a love for David Attenborough and apes. For a year I was a volunteer research assistant for a primatologist studying bonobos at Hunter College, whilst still attending NYU. In my junior year I took a summer residency at a research facility in Ometepe, Nicaragua, to study howler monkeys — I came back covered in tick scabs and a sore neck from craning six hours a day.
Afterwards, I did a NYU Tisch summer documentary course — en route to becoming Attenborough of course — but found myself drawn to the most sophisticated of tool-users, humans. My professor, the Academy®-Award nominated Alice Elliott, was incredibly supportive of my films and encouraged me to apply as an internal transfer.
I’ve always been an emotive, only child and film has provided the best way for me to connect with others, to create a momentary bridge where two separate selves might dissolve to share a singular experience. I cannot now imagine doing anything else.
Q: What are your hopes and ambitions for the future? What do you want to do with your voice as a filmmaker?
A: At present I’m writing the feature adaptation of This Perfect Day, a coming-of-age that builds upon the same themes in the short. I’m also developing two other feature films.
Ultimately I want to make cross-cultural, character-driven epics that expand upon my Asian, Australian, and American upbringing. I want to center marginalized experiences, to validate the diverse identities overshadowed in my childhood, to offer beauty and light in darkness. I really hope my films will offer some council or revelation through recognition or catharsis, in the same way that many stories helped me and continue to help me still.