The award-winning New Zealand documentary maker Pietra Brettkelly had just finished work on the film A Flickering Truth. She’d spent some 2 1/2 years in Afghanistan and it had landed spots at TIFF and the Berlin Film Festival.
As she said in an interview, that filmmaking is only 50 per cent of a successful film. The rest is after the release.
“I always try to get into top five film festivals and Flickering Truth I got into two. So I thought I could relax and collect my thoughts for a couple of weeks and get another idea up,” she said in an interview from her home.
“I have an ideas folder on my laptop. I was looking through that and asking, ‘Do any of these resonate with me?’ Are there any ideas I want to follow through on.”
That’s when she pulled out a note about the Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei.
“I spend such a long time with my subjects so I want to go somewhere interesting. It also has to have a relevance to what is going on in the world at the moment.
“I’m not interested in fashion per se, I known nothing about it, but I am interested in people.”
So she went down an internet rabbit hole and the more she found the more interesting Guo Pei looked.
“I thought, ‘OK, as long as it’s not about fashion.’
The Rihanna thing, as Brettkelly called it, had just happened. The pop star had appeared at the Met Gala in 2015 wearing one of Guo Pei’s designs, a massive golden dress. It was a global sensation.
Brettkelly thought that was interesting and then she read something Guo Pei said.
“She said she didn’t know who Rihanna was.”
All her films are about isolation, Brettkelly said, so she was intrigued.
“I picked up the phone and dialled and three days later we were in Beijing and began filming.”
Brettkelly called Guo Pei’s salon three times before someone answered the phone who spoke English.
“I know know they were running around the salon trying to find somebody who spoke English. The woman came to phone asked who I was and I said I wanted to meet Guo Pei. The woman said she was very private. I said ‘I think I might come’.”
And she did.
“I called up a colleague who I have worked with for a long time. He had just had a three week job cancelled and he was going “How can we survive in this bloody industry and it’s too bloody hard’.
“I said, ‘Let’s go to China and he said, ‘Yes let’s f*****g go’.”
Brettkelly doesn’t do a ton of research on her subjects, she said she starts filming and the story builds from there.
“We went straight from the airport to her salon and she and I and my DP and her husband Jack who speaks English, sat talking for an hour. I laid out the plan that I do for all my subjects and asked her ‘Will you entrust me with your story?’ and she said yes and so we began.”
The result is an award winning documentary called Yellow is Forbidden about Guo Pei’s quest to become a member of the exclusive club of that is the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. There are only 21 members and at the time most were men. The story follows the designer to France for her first ever show in Paris. Guo Pei is the child of a Communist soldier and a blind primary school teacher, who was educated at the No. 2 Light Industry School in Beijing. She has risen to become the designer of choice of China’s nouveau riche. She is currently a guest member of the syndicale.
The film will be screened at the Wakefield Doc Fest this weekend.
When you see the movie Guo Pei is a fascinating mix of confidence, determination and insecurity.
“I see it as naivete,” Brettkelly said. “She feels the weight of needing to find the money to pay for her 500 employees every week. I know she feels that. So that is a constant concern of hers.
“But she is also ‘Well, let’s give it a go because nobody is going to stop us’ even though there are issues of funding and government and the fashion industry which I discovered is as tough as the documentary industry, probably tougher.”
In the end, Brettkelly said she thinks that Guo Pei “believes in the artistry of what she does and she believes in protecting the centuries old tradition of embroidering in China. She has brought it back” and has been recognized for it.
That her fashion has emerged in China which until 20 years ago was pretty disconnected from the western world is an aspect of isolation that appeals to Brettkelly.
It was very important for the filmmaker to meet Guo Pei’s parents and that took a year to arrange. The mother was reluctant apparently.
But finally they turned up and it turned out mom was a ham. She even sang on camera.
“That day was key for me to understand that Guo Pei is the result of a perfect storm. She has this isolation. There is a purity to her inspiration and creativity that is literally like China and its history.
“She had this mother who was blind. So she helped her mother do the sewing. Her father who had some drawing skill always had pencil and paper on hand when he was a soldier.
“And then she had a grandmother who would whisper stories of the last imperial court. She was on the periphery of the court of the Last Emperor. She was aware of what was going on and aware of the fashions. She would whisper these stories to Guo Pei at night.” Yellow was the colour of the emperor in China and Guo Pei’s grandmother told her it was forbidden to her.
“All these things were whirring inside her head and then out comes this amazing work. With anyone who is pushing boundaries of course she has had some misses, but even more successes.”
In Paris the camera captures the snobbery and racism of the fashion industry crowd.
“The cultural arrogance of the West was on display,” Brettkelly said. “I don’t think Guo Pei was exposed to that in the first 40 years of her life.”
But she understood that she is a product of her own culture and its history. So she has a strong belief in her own abilities, BrettKelly said.
“She did start to realize the racism she was facing and it really did upset her.”
Still she wanted to be recognized by haute couture and respected. In a way she is a metaphor for China today.
Yellow is Forbidden will be screened at the Wakefield Doc Fest on Feb. 16 and 17. For times and location, please see wakefielddocfest.ca