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Tiffany Hsiung on her Breakout Debut The Apology

Tiffany Hsiung, director, writer and cinematographer of the The Apology, shares her process and the learning curves of a first-time filmmaker. The Apology is the story of women interned as sex slaves by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II who, for decades, have been seeking an apology from the Japanese government. The Apology was voted runner up for the Vimeo On Demand Audience Award at the 2016 Hot Docs Festival.


HD: I want to start by talking about advocacy in the film. What’s it like being an advocate as a director and doing so on behalf of those who are advocates and storytellers themselves?

Tiffany Hsiung: I met some of the grandmothers as early as 2009, and have since realized that the best way to support them is through making this film sharing their story through their perspective, and just focusing on the human story.  Knowing that they still haven't gotten the justice they deserve weighs on me but throughout the screenings that we’ve had, all around the world, in all kinds of communities, I’m seeing this other form of justice that I’m so proud to share with the grandmothers. People are actually learning about comfort women for the first time and, for me, that is just as important. Another form of justice is knowledge, is education, and I can see that happening for a new, diverse audience. I think as storytellers our job is to focus on capturing and sharing the stories that will evoke thought-provoking questions and offer new perspectives on the subject we are filming. For me, my goal was to show the other side to their political fight, away from the limelight and behind closed doors, that rarely gets seen.

HD: You have a documentary contributing to the historical record in a huge way, because Japan hasn’t acknowledged it in their history books and don`t teach it in school.

TH: It’s still an ongoing journey for them; and now, it’s really for us as well. They’ve passed the legacy on to us, for the next generation to continue that work for them. I believe to fully understand the impact of war and these crimes against humanity one needs to see the aftermath in which these women had to endure from their families, communities and society when returning home. The war never ended for these women. It’s essential to humanize the statistics and historical facts when looking back at WWII for it allows the younger generation to be able to relate and draw connections to the survivors, which I feel our documentary does well.

HD: Your characters are so vocal and so honest because of the nature of their work, and their refusal to be silenced. Did you have trouble getting them to open up to you?

TH: Absolutely, particularly for some grandmothers because of where they’re located, and the communities that they’re surrounded by. Grandma Gil in South Korea is surrounded by more of a community and an organisation that is very active in pursuing justice and talking. Some would tell me their story in little fragments, in little pieces, as our relationship developed. And it’s not just about the atrocities; it’s also about the emotions around the aftermath, around dealing with that shame, and dealing with that silence, and holding that burden all of these years. That took relationships that were built over the course of three or four years, and not just for the grandmothers but for the families as well. I naively thought this film would take two years. Now I see that it could’ve only been throughout the five to six years of getting to know them, and to be able to share this level of intimacy of what they were going through, and are still going through, to capture this.

HD: What does relationship building and intimacy looks like when you’re early in development and you’re wondering if this is even going to turn into a film?

TH: I was learning while I was going along, learning about this history while I was making this film.  For me, there was a lot of sharing my own story, and a lot of the time the camera was pointed on the both of us. We were sharing that space and I was sharing my own personal experience with sexual violence and it was opening space for a dialogue where it can really be this inter-generational bridge between young and old. A big part of my process early on was actually eating. A lot of how I got to know the grandmothers was through cooking, sharing meals with them and their family, and developing that familial bond. I think that physical presence and the day-to-day spending time was important, whether cooking, eating, watching TV, smoking cigarettes, sharing my own family stories as well, and answering the questions they asked me, explaining why I wasn’t married yet. They were so curious to know why I was so interested. A big part of my process was also sharing making this film: messages from my friends, footage, images posted online, so they could see the people affected by their stories. Rarely do subjects, especially if they’re in isolated communities, ever get to see the impact of what they’re saying actually resonating with people. There were so many family members interviewed by journalists over the years, they always complain: “What good could this do?” and “Who’s watching this?” I think to make documentaries is to share with the people that are trusting you and giving you the time of day, welcoming you into their homes, and to share that audience with them. I went back to China and the Philippines afterwards and shared messages from audiences. That does so much for them. Building my relationship with the grandmothers and their families, as well as the organizations that work directly with the grandmothers, was the most essential aspect of our production and eventually in time I felt comfortable to begin asking the more complex questions and the grandmothers felt comfortable to explore them because at that point I was like their honorary adopted granddaughter.


HD: Was this initially intended to be a more personal film?

TH: It started off very personal, but it evolved over the years and I thought: “I want people to focus on the grandmothers.” I didn’t want it to take up space, because I didn’t think that an hour and forty-five minutes is enough time to have three grandmothers’ stories shared. However, I do think the inter-generational dialogue between me and the grandmothers is important, and to see how this is very much a universal story for women that have to hold on to that secret shame. I can be that vessel for that younger generation, but I can best do that through Q&As and interviews like this one.

HD: Can you talk about how your directing style was influenced by the grandmothers? They’re fiery and charming, but they’re also very elderly and fragile.

TH: When I started, it was very much just me with a camera and I really wanted to be as un-intrusive as possible, but also at the same time to bring people in, bring in extreme close-ups in the grandmother's day-to-day lives. Being behind the camera allowed me to both respect their space as well as to bring intimacy to the screen. Again, a big part of my direction with the grandmothers was always sharing what I was filming with them, to play it back right then and there, and for them to see how beautiful they are on the screen. I shot a lot of intimate moments with the grandmothers deliberately using extreme close-ups so that audiences can feel through the lines across their face their long lived ongoing struggle and fight. It was important for me to have them to see how they were actually being captured, so that they knew what I was trying to achieve. Their personalities and demeanour showed so much badass fierceness which was really juxtaposed with their physical bodies, which I loved and admired.  I only wish I can be like them when I'm 80 years old.

HD: In your conversation with Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith, during the Hot Docs industry conference last year, you said that you were very stubborn in getting the film out. What did you mean by that?

TH: Maybe I shouldn't call myself stubborn, maybe the better word is persistent. I just knew that I needed this film to be perfect for the grandmothers; it was everything. For post-production specifically, it’s around the care and nuance that this film needed to be treated with. That couldn’t have been possible without Anita Lee as my producer—she really carried that through, with her background and her filmmaking skills, and was able to help guide that process.  We both wanted Mary Stephen, an amazing editor, to be a part of this film. We also had composer Lesley Barber—we were very specific in the type of music and sound for resonance. We were really pushing for all of these specific details to make this film what it is today, but also having an all-star female crew in these key roles, leading it.  This was my first film, and this film wouldn’t even have been possible without Anita Lee, Mary Stephen, Lesley Barber and all the amazing people that were able to work on it.  It’s important to know that there’s a difference with a woman’s gaze in telling this particular story versus a male’s perspective.


Learn more about The Apology





The 100 million signature campaign:  http://womenandwar.net/contents/custom/campaign/en/campaign.asp?page_str_menu=220201

Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.

Categories: Director's Notebook


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