Words and Interview by Madison Wilde
Since the beginning of cinema, women have long been seen but rarely heard. Even in the silent era, inaudible male voices dominated the screen as echoes of behind-the-scenes influence. This tradition of male-dominated western theatre has survived through three centuries, the inauguration of a new millennium, and multiple waves of feminism. In 1998, according to the New York Film Academy, a mere 9% of American directors were women. Flash forward to 2012: enough time has passed for a girl to be born, begin adolescence, and develop an interest in film. Yet over these 14 years, no progress was made. In 2012, women directors still only made up 9% of all directors. Women remain minorities despite stagnant change in representation behind-the-scenes. This is not just a women’s issue; it’s an issue of all marginalized groups. FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts works to combat this by accepting a diverse group into their exclusive 30-student class annually. First-year film student Diana Yifei Dai explained that the film school selects this diverse group for the particular perspectives that are inherent within it. Though, ultimately, admission relies on how well a student’s personality corresponds to the school’s environment.
A few weeks ago, I visited FSU’s film school at its unassuming home at Doak Campbell Stadium’s University Center A. I met the student I was to interview, Diana Yifei Dai, in an editing room. Diana and her classmates were editing their documentary projects, which will screen this Sunday at 1 pm in the SLC. Each documentary is very distinctive. Diana’s film exploring the life of Chinese immigrants through the lens of food was being edited next to one about guns on campus. There was even an animated documentary in the mix. These varying ideas may be attributed to the school’s diversity. Diana, being both female and a Chinese immigrant, has experienced a life distinct from that of many other filmmakers. A person’s embodied experience guides their expression. As a result, the kind of films she’ll create will tend to be very different than those of a fourth-generation American man. When remembering industry trends, her opportunity at expression is critical. Voices like Diana’s aren’t heard frequently, but when enough of them combine, they form a shouting medley of unique expression.
Burning Tree Magazine: When and how did you become interested in film?
Diana Yifei Dai: I always liked watching movies and we didn’t have a lot growing up because I was raised by a single mom. We were always on the verge of not having any money left, but we had cable and there was always a movie channel and at nighttime they would show foreign movies, like a lot of times [American]. There would be a little introduction and they would do commentary on these movies. I got really interested one day. I was like 12 and was just looking at these Disney Channel movies online and comparing them to the movies I had seen before. I was like, “You know what? I could do this. I could totally do the same thing and it’d be pretty cool.” Of course I did not know how low income family children usually end up in this business, but fuck that. So I just went for it, and my family was just really supportive, at least in the beginning. It’s been fun; it’s been quite a few years.
BTM: Do you have any examples of these Disney movies?
DYD: I was really interested in all the Cinderella adaptations that happened. There are a couple high school Cinderella movies, like there was one with Selena Gomez in it. Oh my God, those movies. And I was like, “I could do better. I could totally do better than this.” I would try to analyze why [there were] certain shots in certain places, really simple analysis but it was fun. Well, I got a kick out of it. So, I mentioned it to my family and mom was like sure. We would talk about film and film analysis. She directed me into thinking about director choices and why certain shots are in certain places. Then opportunity came up and I had a chance to go abroad and pick whatever programs I want to be in for high school. So I was like I want a school with a film program so then I came to south Florida.
BTM: Can you tell me a bit more about the documentary you’re currently working on?
DYD: I had a couple of different ideas. This one was the most feasible one and I ended up doing this. So, I interviewed four groups of Chinese immigrants here in Tallahassee. I asked them what they eat, what they like to eat, and what they thought about American cuisine and Chinese-American cuisine—stuff like that. What I want to do is show the change that happened in their lives as immigrants, because of America and because of a lot of things, through the lens of food. It’s a little bit more lighthearted as a subject and I have pretty things to show. If everything in my documentary fails, I can still edit seven minutes of food footage to music. [The] interviews turned out to be really interesting. Well, I did expect them to be somewhat interesting. They still gave me answers that I did not expect at all for some of the questions, and I learned a lot about my own people here in Tallahassee.
BTM: In terms of documentary manipulation, how far do you believe in making events happen or being a part of the process to draw something through techniques like interviewing? Do you think it is necessary or are you just more of an “I’ll-wait-and-see-what-happens” person?
DYD: We’ve seen successful examples from both sides, so it’s possible to do whatever you want. I think it’s necessary that you are part of the process as a filmmaker. Let’s say I’m a part of this process, I make it clear to my audience that I’m part of the process; that this is me showing my experience instead of what would happen to just about anyone or say what would just happen on a regular day. There’s a movie called The Act of Killing. The entire movie is a reenactment. I love that movie, but I would not watch it a second time because it is extremely sad and disturbing. It is still a documentary and it’s really good. Its like human intervention: the filmmakers created the events that happened in the film through reenactments. So, it really could go in a lot of directions. I don’t think there’s one form or one doctrine that’s absolutely right [or] that’s the only way to go about seeing reality.
BTM: Do you think it’s important for movies to petition for social change? What tends to be your motive when making a movie?
DYD: I respect movies that just make money, like commercial blockbusters with the capitalist society that we live in. I enjoy the benefits of a capitalist society. So, I won’t complain about having just sheer entertainment that I don’t have to bring my brain in and fuel the pain of just the reality of everyday life. But, I think that for movies that I make, I prefer very strongly if they have roles for women that are not like 2D cardboard. That [women] are not sexy lamps, that they’re actual people that have real motives and real desires. That would be a cool thing. I believe that these movies can make money and can generate attention. Then they can be fun movies that sort of have a brain and don’t try to insult ethnic groups, minority groups, in various ways. I believe they can make money. Personally, I would love to make movies that are both entertaining and friendly to groups that are constantly being oppressed.
BTM: In 2012, 20% of film producers were female and only 2% of cinematographers were female. There’s still a huge male-female gap in the cinema world, but women were more often able to be a part of the business rather than the art—though cinematography is more of a technical art. Do you feel optimistic about this changing?
DYD: I absolutely feel optimistic about that. A large part of that is because, when I came into film school, our class was literally half and half—half girls and half boys. At least there’s a part of me that’s really happy to see that we’re trying to make that balance and bring in different voices in the industry. I think you might be interested in this—I don’t know how valid this story is, I only heard it a couple days ago. What I heard is that part of the reason the gender proportion in the industry, part of the reason that’s happening, is [because of] some older directors who are already established and making money. [They] have their own circle; most of them are male. The vast majority are men. When they are seeing younger boys—there’s a metaphor “boy in a baseball cap” or something like that—they see themselves in the boy and they take the kid under their wings. They train them to be good directors, good filmmakers in the future. They see less of that in young girls coming into the industry. So, young girls get less of that connection, less of that opportunity. This kind of discrimination—aside from the actual visible discrimination—this is a subtler kind. It’s not even conscious choices. It’s not even older men consciously making a decision like, “I just don’t like girls coming in.” It’s just systematic and there’s very little to do about that part of the problem. However, with more women coming, people are seeing this issue a little bit more and the rules of the game slowly changing bit by bit. Of course there’s hope.
BTM: Our film school is obviously really good as far as equal representation of males and females, but do you think they do a good job at choosing people that represent different ethnicities, races, religions, and other demographics?
DYD: FSU’s film school definitely tries to bring in diversity. Not just for diversity’s sake, but for the perspectives that it offers. We’ve seen the films that bring in minority characters—black best friend, Hispanic sidekick, the girl that could literally be replaced by a sexy lamp, just a set of boobs and blonde hair and that’s it. One thing the film school’s doing really well is that we don’t have censorship in content. Whatever we’re trying to do, they will try to help with organizing script, structure, [and] story. But in terms of what content you have in your story, that will never be censored. So that’s really good. Students do a lot of the time try to tell provocative stories.