TFF 2018 – YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN – interview with filmmaker pietra brettkelly

VISIONAIRE presents coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival with special corespondent Lisa Collins.

“YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN is a modern day Cinderella, where diminutive and daring Guo Pei’s dream — of the exclusive yet savage world of haute couture — doesn’t end at the ball!” shares the inspiringly passionate and dynamic filmmaker, Pietra Brettkelly, who dares to take on this complex story; one that she filmed — across cultural and language barriers — to find the essence of another female artist, whom, Brettkelly considers genius!

The oh-so-impressive artist is none other than the fabulously talented, yet modestly spoken couturier, Guo Pei — most known, in more mainstream circles, for her elaborately embroidered, fur-trimmed, golden gown and cape, don by a stunning Rihanna at the 2015 Met Gala. Legendary!… Indeed, Guo is the possibly the empress of a shifting aesthetic energy, or of a gracefully-disruptive new wave that’s emerging in the fashion world. Brettkelly offers that Guo’s mere presence opens the conversation of “redressing gender power”, in Paris and beyond, while she also shakes up the cultural status quo by bringing China into the forefront of the conversation.

Dreamy, kinetic, shifting, and layered, YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN, Brettkelly’s fifth documentary, operates on several levels, as its story unfolds. The filmmaker doesn’t like filmmaking that “is too obvious.” So the instinctive director/producer thoughtfully wrestled with how she’d visually “get inside of Guo Pei’s creative process?” On Brettkelly’s first day of filming, Guo revealed her “obsessive love of kaleidoscopes.” The designer later revealed memories of her grandmother recalling the colorful, ornate regalia of the “Emperor’s Court”. This quest set the loving stage for an aesthetically-inspired cinematic palette, explored by a visually-driven filmmaker, telling a provocatively-laced story, about a beautifully rebellious designer; one who is patiently, artfully, and diligently weaving her cultural legacy into a reimagined future and space…

Pietra Brettkelly’s YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN promises to make a big splash at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival as a World Premiere in the Documentary Competition section!
By Lisa Collins

LISA COLLINS: How did this terrific Guo Pei project come into your world?
PIETRA BRETTKELLY: YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN is my fifth documentary film. Early in 2015 my previous film — A FLICKERING TRUTH — had just been selected at two of the world’s top film festivals, Venice and Toronto; and was then selected as the New Zealand entrant for the Oscar’s Best Foreign Language. I’d spent 2.5 years in and out of Afghanistan, a country and people that stole my heart.

But I was ready to find something female, creative, and once again delve into a language I didn’t understand, a practice I love to combine with cinema verite, to see what I can discover across cultures and language. In this case, I sought to find the essence of this artist.

There is also a lot of talk of the middle class of China coming into ‘our’ world, that of the West [world]. There is fear, misinformation and prejudice associated with this. It’s a subject I’ve heard throughout my travels. I wondered if there was a story in which this could be discussed?

But also, was there a discussion, in this age of the redressing of gender power, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris is perhaps the most exclusive club in the world — Givenchy, Lagerfeld, Chanel, Dior, Gaultier….21 members, mostly men, mostly European. Could my film possible follow a shake-up of that culture?

LC: Your visual tropes, like the goldfish, which wrapped around Guo Pei’s unfolding story were so bold and compelling. What was the source(s) of your inspiration for your visual aesthetic?
PB: On the first day of filming with Guo Pei we went to her home. In my filmmaking I jump right in, researching as we film, still trying to discover the visual language and the physical restrictions, the dogma, if you will, of this film. I’m always searching to find a truer, purer way to tell my stories; and this for me means the fewest people in the crew possible — we’re down to two, just the director of photography, Jake Bryant, and myself; no sound operator, no translator, no fixers, no driver, and in the conflict zones we’ve been in, I don’t use security. So with Guo Pei’s story, it was just Jake and I. But how was I going to visually get inside Guo Pei’s creative process? And on the first day she revealed her obsessive love of kaleidoscopes! This was the first element of my visual language.

And later in the production it came to me that Guo Pei’s talent reflects a perfect wave, if you will, in its development. She had talent in drawing inherited from her soldier father who sketched while he was away on the frontline, as it were. It was a talent that Guo Pei first revealed as a little child, drawing goldfish in perspective. Her mother has very little eyesight and so Guo Pei had to, as a young child, be her eyes, one of her first memories being threading a darning needle. Also, Guo Pei was brought up with the strong influence of her grandmother who had grown up close to the dynastic courts, and relayed to Guo the stories of the Emperor’s Court — of colour, and brocade, and ceremony. The goldfish were the second element of my visual language.

LC: Impressive that these elements you built are so beautiful, and yet organically realized from Guo’s aesthetic, personal world! Awesome!

PB: And the third involved juxtapositions or duality that reflect Guo Pei’s journey from China to the old world of Europe; the industrial nature of creating her beautiful fabrics. Jake and I played with reflections, with this duality as we were filming cinema verite scenes, dualities of cultures, genders, aesthetics, and even purchased and pulled apart a beautiful chandelier that we shot footage through. I also thought in a kaleidoscopic way when considering all of Guo Pei’s storylines and the various aspects of her life that contributed to her extraordinary work — industrial China, futuristic China, traditional China, family love, Balenciaga, European haute couture history.

I don’t like filmmaking that is too obvious – I bring footage of the goldfish in at various times to remind the audience of those first signs of this genius when she was a little girl, that she is so much more than a fashion designer, to remind the audience of the inspirations and the genius of this woman.

LC: In working so closely with Guo Pei, what was the most unexpected thing you learned about her, or her process?
PB: I’m drawn to people who are rebelling against loss. How that rebellion manifests itself is what I love to follow in my films.

But I am not so familiar with the fashion industry. When we first travelled with Guo Pei to Paris for her exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre, in the first few days of setting up the exhibition, the Europeans who were employed to work with her, were asking me to “point out the designer?”, as they were used to designers being outspoken, dramatic even — and Guo Pei was not that person. She is quietly rebellious and not rude. She was always gracious and kind to her employees, to the models, and to those she would meet.

In YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN she goes into the cutthroat world of fashion, navigating it with a humility rarely seen in artists and designers. She has a special kind of ego in that sense. She is truly anti-fashion. She is changing the world’s perception of China and she’s very aware of that. She doesn’t speak English and I unfortunately don’t speak Mandarin. But we managed to connect beyond language and coincidentally at one stage were both in the L.A. airport for 7 hours — and happily spent that time together in a cafe.

LC: How great!?!

PB: … Yes, but selfishly the most unexpected thing I learnt about Guo Pei is that the singular focus I have in my work, risking so much personally, financially and professionally to make my films, that she too relies immensely on her gut and plays with risk. Selfishly getting close to Guo Pei has encouraged me that I’m not mad or crazy!

Also in this time of power shifts within our industry and hopefully universally, as Guo Pei was brave enough to reveal the breadth of her emotions to me, I’ve also continued to feel stronger in how emotional I am. As a woman I’m becoming more confident in embracing my tears, my emotions – our traditionally patriarchal industry might see my emotions as weakness but more and more I believe they are rather a positive – to be sympathetic, empathetic, to care so deeply and emotionally about my character, my script, my film that I am bought to tears must only mean the story is so much truer, richer and will resonate with a bigger audience. So I continue to cry…

LC: The film weaves seamlessly across several cities, how are the locations part of the character of your story?
PB: YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN is a modern day Cinderella where diminutive and daring Guo Pei’s dream of the exclusive yet savage world of haute couture doesn’t end at the ball…

But I was keen for it to be more than a fashion film; and thankfully the film weaves global power dynamics and the opposition between art and commerce, with a hankering for oppressive ‘Imperial Grandeur’. And as I explored this, it was only natural that the world Guo Pei was breaking into would become a ‘character’ — Paris and New York in particular, but definitely old world Europe. And with her own homeland China, now at a crossroads, changing dramatically.

China has emerged as one of the great super powers. The United States owes it trillions of dollars. Other countries also hold a financial debt to China. We understand it is an economic super power. And yet artistically China has lost its way, buried in mass production, in the conveyor belt of plastic toy manufacturing and knock offs. China equals cheaply made.

I was soon to realize — Guo Pei breaks the mold. And she is proud to showcase her country in this film. This is a China that we have not seen in the West for hundreds of years. We not only see this shift in production told through Guo Pei’s level of luxury; but also get a unique glimpse into the uber wealthy of China.

LC: Yes, that was rather eye-opening, seeing this high-end world.
PB: In the world’s most famed “cultural city” of Paris people don’t even know her name; suspicions and misunderstandings abound. For Guo Pei the cultural divide rears its head; she acknowledges in the film that ‘fast food fashion’ is dictating unreasonable terms [for her to meet], versus her fulfilling her artistic and traditional vision.

I was excited to follow her and find out: is this world all that she thought it would be? Does it have something to offer her with her 5000 years of Chinese design history? Or is she part of the wave of the new world — new wealth that is taking over the mantel of who sets the world’s design aesthetics? It is East meets West on the battleground of the fashion world; will the outcome be unexpected?

LC: Guo is often seen negotiating across invisible cultural borders to do her work. Did you go through a similar process in pairing up with her and trying to convey that aspect of the story?
PB: In the past I’ve made films in Dari, Sudanese, Arabic, Maori to name a few. It is something I look for and welcome, to be enveloped in words and sentences, sounds I don’t know. I love to feel the fear of the unknown of a different culture and language and then to see what I can gather; specifically, that which Jake Bryant, my exceptional director of photography and I can understand through common human emotions, experience, reactions. This is part of my filmic practice as I attempt, in my career, within the context of the world’s diversities, to show how similar we are; to share that common human needs, desires and goals can transcend language, while also celebrating diversity.

The isolation from Western creativity that Guo Pei has experienced intrigued me. But despite this isolation, I loved discovering how genuine, raw and unique her artistic talent is. Having come from a place of relative isolation myself, from New Zealand, I’ve often been told that, “surely you must live in London, New York or Europe to further you career, to find the inspirations you need.’ In Guo Pei I’ve found another ‘isolated’ talent — and we have created a unique closeness.

LC: From Guo Pei’s drawings, to her pieces, to the runway shows, what was the single most stunning creation you observed?
PB: There is a piece that Guo Pei designed years ago that was in the Paris exhibition. It’s a green dress that is like an upside down umbrella. And when it was installed I couldn’t stop staring at it — to me it represents everything I was to learn about Guo Pei’s art — it is teetering between fashion and art, between the unwearable and the sublime; yet if executed with the wrong artless eye, it could become ridiculous — but it isn’t because she has such a steady eye. I realized was the mark of a true artist.

LC: Guo’s relationship with her husband is featured in such a lovely way in the film, can you tell us more about what it was like to observe/follow a male who is so supportive to his spouse’s ambitions (as roles are usually reversed!)?
PB: What an extraordinary partnership they are — and the success of that partnership is shown in the achievements of her work. In the film, Guo Pei describes Jack her husband as her “ ings”. And he has uniquely supported her creativity and focused all of his talents into fostering hers – it’s a unique reversal of a traditional heterosexual relationship. They giggled together, held hands, ate ice-cream and did big business all in the space of half an hour. They are an example of how fun and friendship and a common goal can be a force in art and commerce.

LC: From the ultra-dreamy opening runway preparation scene, to crisply observing the team seamstresses, busy at work — your being attentive sound is clearly important to your storytelling. Can you elaborate?
PB: There is such extraordinary detail in Guo Pei’s work that I wanted that singularity of detail — a certain sparseness in the film’s sound design as well.

I sound mix with an extraordinary team including an Academy Award winner who worked on The Lord of the Rings trilogy with Sir Peter Jackson at Park Road Post. He’s called ‘Book Ends’ because he has two Oscars. When I first worked with him I was a bit overwhelmed because as I said to him “I know you have two Oscars and I have none ….yet”. But this is a wonderfully generous team and they forgive me for my constant demands for “Nothing, no sound.” Or “Just a wee note, or scratch”.

LC: Talk about your excitement at premiering at TFF18 with this film that already has so much buzz!
PB: Tribeca Film Festival is such a perfect premier for YELLOW IS FORBIDDEN – in a major world centre of press, art, fashion and creative thought. It makes me so thankful and excited to meet the audiences that will be the first to see my film! And to be premiering In Competition and Opening Weekend is already such an encouragement, and great affirmation, of this film which has been over three years in the making.

But there is also a sense of anxiety/desperation with this film — and I hope you’re right that it already has buzz, as I need it to succeed. This is my fifth feature film; and financially, it’s been crippling to forge this path. My professional story is sadly common amongst too many documentary filmmakers [struggling to get funding]. There are so many wonderful stories yet to be told that need support; and my own curiosity needs to be fed, so I hope TFF18 is a resounding success, and Guo Pei’s story reaches beyond.

I truly believe: embrace your tears, embrace your emotions — our traditionally patriarchal industry might see our emotions as weakness and as a negative, but I believe this state of openness is something positive; namely, to be sympathetic, empathetic, to care so deeply and emotionally about our characters, our scripts, our films that we are bought to tears must only mean our stories are so much truer, richer and will resonate with a bigger audience, than films from those filmmakers who remain stoic and contained. I continue to cry…

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