Tiffany Hsiung is a filmmaker with a focus on bridging the intergenerational gap, creating nonjudgmental atmospheres for discussion, and making sure that today’s generation remembers the importance of respecting and learning from their elders. Her latest film, The Apology, follows the journeys of three former ‘comfort women’, a term for women forced into military sexual slavery in World War II by the Imperial Japanese Army, and their fight to get an apology as well as making sure nobody ever forgets this horrible part of history. It also took seven years to make. Fresh from the film’s premiere at the 2017 Human Rights Watch Festival in London, England, Hsiung stopped by Ryerson to talk to Function about working as a documentary filmmaker, navigating the industry after leaving school, and her latest film making its way to film festivals across the world.
Function: How did your time at Ryerson help you prepare for your career?
Tiffany Hsiung: Four years at Ryerson gave me the foundation for the art form that I use today; without that foundation people don’t understand. The professors were also very inspiring to me; they’re all working in the industry at the same time so you know that what they’re saying references what they’ve been through. Ryerson in many ways allowed me to start practicing in the different genres. One course specifically, it was all about storytelling using After Effects: classes like that are really good because they expand your understanding of the tools that are out there.
FN: Your latest film, The Apology, follows the journeys of three former ‘comfort women’ and their fight to get an apology for what happened to them, as well to make sure that nobody forgets what happened. What made you want to cover this topic?
TH: This project all started after I had wrapped up working on a CBC project on the Beijing Olympics. I went to Botswana, Nairobi and brought my mom with me. While we were there, a woman asked my mom, “What does your daughter do?” She told her that I’m a filmmaker, and the woman said there was this group that goes to schools to educate students on the history of ‘comfort women’ and that they needed a person to document a tour. The whole thing really blew me away because it wasn’t something that I was ever taught, and not knowing about it got me angry. I met one of the grandmothers and they really reminded me of my own grandmother. I wanted to get to know and understand the women behind the statistics, and connect with them on a personal level. The grandmothers deserve to be known for who they are, the atrocities they have lived through and lived with afterwards.
FN: What was it like to work on a project for 7 years? How do you know when it’s finished?
TH: From research to conception to treatment to picture lock, it took 7 years to complete this project. It was really hard to say when it was done, I didn’t know and I didn’t want it to be over. I was blessed working with the National Film Board and their experience; they really helped to figure out when we were done. I got to work with Anita Lee who is a pioneer in filmmaking; it was a dream come true to work with her and she knew the topic as well. I could not have done it without her, she was really the one to tell me it was finished. It has been a long journey; it took seven years, but it needed to take seven years. The entire process felt like getting a Masters and a PhD in storytelling.
FN: Some filmmakers have a hard time getting funding for projects with much shorter timelines, how do you stay funded for 7 years?
TH: It was interesting. I was fortunate enough to get funding for research and development, but really if you wait for money to do something it is not going to work. Either get on board or don’t. People want to work with, and fund, people who are passionate so it is important to really just get started on your project. With so much access to technology today like iPhones and all of the software, it’s really easy to get started. Then when you go to pitch your idea for funding you can show them all of the work you’ve already done, even having things like mood boards helps, they’ll say, “look at how much work they’ve been able to do without our money” and they’ll be interested in helping you take it further. I was able to create an impressive package to get funding that way. I also encourage crowdfunding; we were one of the first Canadian projects to get on Kickstarter. Crowdfunding doesn’t just help with getting money, but also provides you with the analytics of who wants to see the film, which is all helpful information that can be used in your pitch for further funding. Ultimately, for The Apology, it was when the National Film Board got on board that helped take it to the next level. With some of the most established Canadian filmmakers supporting it one hundred percent, that helped to make it what it is, and made it a film that the grandmothers deserved, and they deserve the best of the best.
FN: Is there ever any inner conflict when covering such an emotional subject? Are you ever torn between being the director who really wants to get the shot and being a friend to these people you have to know over the course of filming?
TH: All of the time. When I was filming, I was really more of a honorary granddaughter to them and that was really important. Without the element of the human condition, you don’t get to tell the whole story. It also helps them become more comfortable talking to you, which is important because people sometimes change in front of the camera. Sometimes I even forgot that I was a filmmaker and would just hang out with them. It is important to create a safe space for people to be who they want, and to let them know that you are there to listen. I think we have really lost touch with the tradition of respecting our elders, and I want to help change that with The Apology.
FN: You’ve said before that you’re focused on cross-cultural and intergenerational work, is that brought on by this feeling that we have lost this important tradition of respecting and listening to our elders?
TH: Our society has lost touch with our elders and the importance of their wisdom and their storytelling that allows us to have a more sound foundation of knowing where we come from. Not knowing where you come from and not knowing your ancestral track is very problematic. My next film really focuses on the epigenetics of trauma; and where they lay within our bodies and by not talking about the things that we have experienced to the next generation, people go on in the world not understanding why they suffer from anxiety or why they can’t do certain things, and it’s all diagnosis, you’re stressed, you’re bipolar, you’re this, you’re that, and it’s not so clinical I believe. I think that there are ways that we can change our genes; studies have shown that we can change our genes from these traumas that were left two generations ago. So, yes, my interest in building that intergenerational bridge between young and old started from when I was in high school and when I connected with my own grandmother. It all started fro this journey that I made when I was in Ryerson. While I was in Ryerson, in third year during the summer, I decided to go to Taiwan because I had never been there before and that’s where my mother is from and I wanted her to pay for my trip and she said that she would if I went and found her biological parents, my grandparents, and I said yes. That whole epic story and journey was documented, I did it with a couple of friends, it’s something that really ignited this understanding around our own history. The fact that I was able to do that, and the fact that I was able to piece together this missing part of my mom’s own childhood that she never knew about, which is kind of weird because I knew more about my mom than she knew about herself and why she became who she is, and the importance of searching and asking those questions at a very early stage in my life as a storyteller was something that always motivated me. In so many stories of the grandmothers you hear and see how they aren’t able to talk about this with their own families, but they’re able to talk about it with a stranger. There was something to that, that needs to be acknowledged and how we as family members play a role in contributing to people’s silence. You don’t even know it, but somebody in your family could be going through something but because you don’t create that non-judgmental atmosphere when something horrific happens they don’t feel like they can go to you.
FN: And The Apology is now in 66 theatres across Korea, what does that mean to you and for the message of this film?
TH: So we had our semi-theatrical release in Canada first in December, and then after that we got the news that we were going to be in 66 mainstream theatres across Korea. It was a phenomenal privilege to know that we can hold that same space as these blockbuster films that have no substance, and that we can offer that to the Korean public and citizens. When I got the news, it was so amazing; People were taking and sending me photos of our posters up around the city having the same presence as the Hollywood films, and I think that’s what the grandmothers deserve. I hope that other countries are able to pick it up and go theatrical with it and give it the run so that more people are able to see the story.
FN: We were lucky to catch you on a stop back in Toronto form taking The Apology film to film festivals around the world. What has that experience been like?
TH: I have been very fortunate to be able to travel with this film. We started with the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, where I actually brought Grandma Gil to the premiere. She had never seen a film in theatres and her memory has started to fade since filming ended so helped her to remember all that she has been through, and it really made it all worth it to give her that. Since then we have traveled to the largest Asian film festival, the Busan International Film Festival, where it actually picked up the award for Best Documentary. That was a different experience because the audience all knew the story of ‘comfort women’, but this allowed them to see the other side of the story and it resonated on another level. That was a reaction I was anticipating before we even finished filming. I never expected the universality of the project though, like we won the Audience Award at the Cork International Film Festival in Ireland. It was interesting to see how this Irish audience was connecting with an Asian history and I think that really speaks about the film being about the human condition. Additionally, after we finished filming I sort of fell into this post-partum depression and the audiences have really made it better. I have watched the film a million times at this point, so now I love watching the people. I’m so proud of the grandmothers, and I always capture the audience thanking the grandmothers at the end of a screening to show the grandmothers the impact of the film.
FN: For this film you formed an all-female crew, why was that important for you and for this project?
TH: I think I mentioned earlier that the team was built once I was with the National Film Board and I had Anita Lee driving the helm of the production, and I think that the fact that she saw eye-to-eye with the vision of the project became very apparent because I shot most of the footage myself, but to bring on someone like Iris Ng who is a documentary cinematographer, to bring on Leslie Barber, the composer, and to bring Mary Stephen on as our editor was incredibly important to me, as well as to Anita, basically because the female gaze captures a different image, a different story, and something that I don’t think has been done with survivors of military sexual slavery. It was important to have those elements and those nuances be part of the narrative because it really lends itself to the story of how they have survived all these years. It’s not black and white, there’s so many grey zones and difficulties of understanding why one would rather choose to stay silent versus coming out to their loved ones, or why silence and stoicness actually shows a lot of levels of love to a daughter or to a mother between our characters in China. I think that because we have this team of female filmmakers and people in the key roles to make this film possible we were all able to sew all of those details together collectively that I think made the film what it is today and what makes it so different than other films that might have covered the same subject matter. It’s a different kind of focus where it’s not so heavy-handed in the details of rape and atrocities, where you’re like “oh that’s really going to shock people so we should just throw in more gore” whereas I believe that because we’re all women and we all understand the challenges and the difficulties and the stories of survivors, as some of us are survivors ourselves, it’s important to understand the type of narrative that you want to share with people and how we convey that with a crew of women in different departments made it really be packaged all together.