Q&A with Pietra Brettkelly

Posted Wednesday 24 Oct 2018

Pietra & Guo Pei

A pair of "crazy" shoes sparked the idea for Yellow Is Forbidden, Pietra Brettkelly's documentary about China'sdesign darling Guo Pei (pictured above, left) and her efforts to be recognised by the fashion industry as an haute couture designer. Guo Pei's dresses are pretty crazy themselves (one weighed 50kg, another took 50,000-odd hours to create) so this wasn't just any pair of shoes - these were almost sculptures. "I loved that a small world, a little scene, characters [were] carved into the heel," says Brettkelly (pictured above, right). Due for release in New Zealand on 1 November, Yellow Is Forbidden is Brettkelly's fifth documentary feature. We spoke to her soon after she learned that it had been selected as New Zealand's entry in the 91st Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. 

WIFT: What were the main challenges for you, as a woman, in getting this film made?
PB: Funding! Getting the funding for this film was one of the worst experiences in my life, I felt so disenfranchised. It's not a New Zealand film, so I couldn't access funding from the New Zealand channels. Women are not taken as seriously if there isn't a man on the project, or in the room. It's a constant in this industry. We need to apply the 50-50 [gender equality] equation to funding as well. Someone said to me recently, "Oh, just consider yourself an artist and shut up!" But even artists can work on their own. Filmmakers need other people, film is such a cooperative industry and that's what makes it expensive.

WIFT: What other challenges did you face? 
PB: With any film there's a yin and a yang and the extremes of each in this film were crippling. It was an extraordinary experience. I did 14 blocks of filming in six different countries. Guo Pei speaks no English, but we never communicated through translators. Rather we communicated just as people, that's my whole modus operandi, to go beyond language, to just be together. If we needed to contact more directly then we did it through WeChat.

WIFT: What did you bring to this project as a woman director?
PB: I think I have a high level of empathy and people can trust me. I mean, I'd known Guo Pei for one hour before she agreed to do the film. We filmed her for two years, that's a huge level of trust. She also ignored us - which is what you want your subject to do! I also think it's imperative to be impassioned [if you're making a film], and women tend to show their emotions more than men. I know I do! During the filming Guo Pei and I cried a lot. And we laughed a lot too. The reason why I protect the trust Guo Pei gave me is because I feel emotionally invested in her, there's no bottom line there.

Here's something that illustrates my life as a filmmaker right now: to help pay the bills, I rent my apartment out on Airbnb and housesit instead. I got the email notifying me that my film had been selected for the Oscars on the same day as an email from Airbnb saying I was now officially a 'Super Host'. I thought it was funny that, here I was with a film up for an Oscar, yet I couldn't afford to live in my own apartment! But I do love my life and my job, I'm so excited by it.