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Tribeca Women Directors: Meet Jessica Yu (Misconception)

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
April 19, 2014 1:00 PM
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Still from "Misconception"

Jessica Yu's award-winning body of work includes her film "Breathing Lessons," which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short; her documentary for Participant Media on the water crisis, Last Call at the Oasis, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival; and documentaries such as Protagonist, In the Realms of the Unreal, HBO's The Living Museum, and the hybrid short "The Kinda Sutra," all of which premiered at Sundance. Her feature comedy debut, Ping Pong Playa, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. (Press materials)

Misconception will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20.

What drew you to this project and story?

A couple of years ago, I directed Last Call at the Oasis, a film about the world's water crisis. My producer Elise Pearlstein and I realized that when talking about the future of the resource, population growth was the elephant in the room. At every Q&A for Last Call, someone would stand up to ask, "Why are we even talking about conservation when we can't control population?" We literally had people asking us to make this film. But then during the research phase, I became fascinated by the disconnect between what I thought I knew and what is actually happening. Ignorance and curiosity make a powerful fuel.

 

What was the biggest challenge? 

The large and multi-faceted nature of the subject. The film doesn't fixate on the numbers; it tells stories of ordinary people. We found such strong stories; each could have been its own film. The challenge was to make the stories intimate and illuminating and unexpected -- and incredibly concise. That last bit is the painful part. It was really hard to make some of the choices of what to leave out. Along the way, I learned that the phrase "DVD extra?" is code for "Can we please move along?" But in the end, the goal is to make the film greater than the sum of its parts, and I'm happy with the balance we achieved.

 
What advice do you have for other female directors?

The same as for any director: keep finding ways to direct. Maybe it'll be tougher being female, but it's tough for everyone. If being the underdog fuels you, use it! Otherwise, don't fixate on it. In this business, there's an endless list of things to worry about. Oh, and if you're already a successful director of any stripe, it's good to step back and look at your crew every once in a while, to check that you're giving a variety of talented people a chance. It's not always within your power, but I've found that others are surprisingly receptive once you bring it up.
 

What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

I have never thought about this. I don't know! I'll have to ask some folks. Well, within the doc world my scripted work is not so well-known, and vice versa in the scripted world. It makes sense that people pay attention to the activity within their own sphere. 

 

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

I'm comforted in knowing that the availability of a film and its virtual shelf life are infinitely extended. It's also a bit worrying, though, to see the growing expectation that all content should be obtainable for free.

 

Name your favorite women directed film and why. 

I don't have an absolute favorite; my brain doesn't work that way. But just thinking in recent terms, Debra Granik's Winter's Bone was pretty damned perfect. The tension and the turns in character were so well-crafted. I was so keyed up watching it that at one point I broke out into completely inappropriate nervous laughter. That was a first. 

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