May 2004

AAC Presents a Conversation with Asian-American Documentarians 


On Thursday, March 25th, the DGA Asian-American Committee (AAC) presented "A Conversation with Asian-American Documentarians Freida Lee Mock and Jessica Yu." Moderated by producer and AAC committee co-chair, Wenda Fong, the Oscar-winning filmmakers screened clips of their work and spoke about the love, struggle and craft of documentary filmmaking.

Both women drifted into documentaries by accident. Mock was studying history and law at UC Berkley before she landed into the uncertain world of film. Yu, a former member of the 1986 USA National Fencing Team, stumbled into commercial production in San Francisco when she was looking for a job to supplement her fencing career.


AAC Co-chair Wenda Fond with Jessica Yu and Freida Lee Mock

"In film, you can be in a situation where no one cares where or if you went to school, just what experiences have you had," said Yu, who won an Academy Award in 1997 for her short film, Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien. "It's really humbling and wonderful in that way, but it's also one of those things where you need to know what you want to do or you can end up drifting from job to job. So when I got to Los Angeles, I looked up Freida and she and her husband were kind enough to let me hang around and learn from them. Their films were things they cared about. The work was rewarding."

Mock, who began her career at David Wolper Productions on National Geographic and the Jacques Cousteau series, eagerly shared her experience and knowledge with Yu. She also hired Yu as an associate producer on Maya Lin - A Strong Clear Vision, her 1995 Oscar-winning film, which told the gripping story behind the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its impact on the American people.

"I was interested in the idea of doing a film about war and race. How do you deal with these issues in a three-dimensional form as opposed to an essay?" Mock said. "Then I begin researching. What do you really know about anybody? It's usually an article, and once you do the research, you meet the person."

Both Yu and Mock offered this advice on choosing subjects for documentary films – Don't interview your subject before you film them.

"You should be pretty straight-forward and don't talk too much about the specifics," said Mock. "But I also find that you need a rapport up front. Either it's there or it's not there."

For Yu, Breathing Lessons was the project on which she instantly clicked with her subject. Based on paraplegic writer Mark O'Brien, she weaved together the stories of his limited physical and boundless imaginative lives.


(Top) Jessica Yu (below) Freida Lee Mock

"A lot of times, you get lucky with a subject, in terms of if that person has an urgency to tell their story and your goal of making an honest film is something that you share," said Yu, whose documentary The Living Museum, about an art community in a New York mental institution, premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. "I've always found that when you're working with people to keep a sort of what I always call a respectful distance. You are clear in your motives, talk about what you want to do and establish a certain trust. But you can't be buddy-buddy in the way that things might get confusing."

Mock, who also directed Sing! (2001), Bird by Bird with Annie (1999) and Return with Honor (1998), has learned to anchor herself with a solid idea in the pre-production phase. Not only does her central idea allow her to avoid confusion, but it also evolves and carries her through to the end of the project. The key, she said, is to establish a production plan, but not let it paralyze your creativity.

"There are unknowns that happen along the way. That's what documentaries are about," said Mock. "You've got to seize the moment. You've got to like living in the unknown."

Yu follows a similar fluid approach. Once she's done shooting, she does an extensive paper cut before she edits. "I edit the films myself, so it really pays for me to be diligent about having a structure that keeps evolving," she said. "A lot of people think they are going to find the film in the editing room. No myth has less reality in it. Because you're dealing with real people and real situations, you have to have a certain respect, in terms of going into people's lives and having an idea in your head of knowing what you're going for and not just expecting them to produce."

AAC co-chairs Wenda Fong and Victor Ho, documentarian Jessica Yu, AAC co-chair Henry Chan, and documentarian Freida Lee Mock

While there is technically no script, added Mock, documentaries and narrative films are more alike that many think. Not only is casting key to both forms, but dramatic structure is also crucial when you're telling a story that often unfolds over a number of years.

"I thought my film on Maya Lin would be really simple. One and half years turned into five," she said, laughing. "The challenge was – how do we keep peaking? As a documentary filmmaker, you're always thinking about structure and dramatic arches."

Finding money for projects is also a constant concern. Grants - once plentiful in the past - are now few and far in between. As a result, said Yu, documentary filmmakers have to use their own money to get their projects made. Her current film, In the Realm of the Unreal - which tells the story of Henry Darger, a deceased, loner artist – is a prime example.

"If you do documentaries, you end up breaking every rule of how you should fund something," Yu said. "People say, 'Never put your own money in a film.' But how do you get something like this one made? You have to have more faith in it than anybody else."

Interestingly enough, Yu's love of documentaries prompted her to pursue opportunities in narrative filmmaking. Yu - who patterns her career after filmmaker and DGA President Michael Apted - has also directed episodes of the dramas, The West Wing, The Guardian and ER.

"Not only is it stimulating and I learn so much from every job, but it takes the pressure off documentaries, in terms of them having to pull their own weight," she said. "My last project took me five years to do and you never think it's going to take that long, but at least now I know I don't have to make a living off of it."

Mock, who survives between projects doing non-fiction works-for-hire, offered a humorous perspective on the life of a documentary filmmaker.

"I tell people all the time when you're a documentary filmmaker, instead of writing a magazine, you're writing a novel. Two to four years to finish a film is common. So if this is what you want to do, just get a gig. But have a passion," she said. "Have a project with passion and that will keep you going."

AAC Presents
Moderated by producer and AAC committee co-chair, Wenda Fong.
More from this issue
Moderated by producer and AAC committee co-chair, Wenda Fong.