Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Ruby Yang’s newest film, My Voice, My Life, follows an unlikely group of misfit students from four Hong Kong middle and high schools cast in a musical theater performance. From low self-esteem to blindness, each student confronts unique personal challenges in the process of developing his or her character.
This moving and insightful film chronicles the trials and tribulations of this group of underprivileged students as they go through six months of vigorous training to produce a musical. A life-affirming journey of self-discovery and growth, the stories of these young people will challenge every parent, teacher and policymaker to reflect on our way of nurturing the young.
Brought together to sing, dance and act, the students question their own abilities and balk at the spotlight. Teachers and administrators question whether this ragtag band will be able to work together, much less put on a successful musical. But Nick Ho, director of the production, holds onto hope that his tough love approach will unite the students and bring out their inner performers.
The L plus H Creations Foundation presents My Voice, My Life in association with the Lee Hysan Foundation.
My Voice, My Life is playing at Cinema Village in New York through Sept. 3 and will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle Music Hall on Sept. 4. Click here for tickets. The film is 91 minutes in Cantonese with English subtitles.
Ruby took time out of her busy schedule to answers some questions via email from Hong Kong.
Lia: What inspired you to make My Voice, My Life?
Ruby: My first documentary, Citizen Hong Kong, was filmed during the return of Hong Kong (to China) in 1997. I always wanted to do another documentary about the young people in Hong Kong.
In 2013, L Plus H Creations Foundation (a social enterprise that improves the lives of underprivileged youth through art) asked me to make a documentary about their inaugural musical. I saw their first rehearsal and noticed a young man named Tsz Nok. He’s one of four visually impaired students being selected to take part. I was very moved by his singing and later found out that he lost his sight one year ago. I thought it would be a good story about inclusion as well as witnessing the transformative power of arts to build confidence for these marginalized youth.
Lia: What motivates you as an artist and as a filmmaker?
Ruby: Good human stories.
I think all my films are about identity, marginalized groups and social changes affecting people’s lives. If you look at the children being affected by HIV/AIDS or the farmer who studies environmental law to save his village, you see a common thread emerging – the human spirit and it’s about humanity.
Lia: After living in the U.S. for such a long time, what has it been like to be back in Hong Kong?
Ruby: Hong Kong has become quite political in the last couple of years – high pressure and intense. There is a lot of tension between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong born Chinese.
People are media savvy. At the same time they are also bombarded with negative news. My husband and I moved to Beijing in 2004, lived in China for eight years before moving to Hong Kong. It took me a while to adjust to the freedoms in Hong Kong.
Lia: What has it been like working in China? Have there been restrictions or challenges?
Ruby: In Hong Kong, as long as one gets the permission from the person or place to shoot you just shoot – but in China that’s not the case. Even with the person’s permission, you might not be able to continue shooting because you might be touching on a sensitive topic, which can be stopped at any time.
Lia: Which of the subjects in My Voice, My Life do you relate to most?
Ruby: I related to all of them in different ways. They are rebellious, having short attention span, unable to communicate with their parents, lacking self-confidence, feeling excluded … I think we all share that kind of experience.
Lia: What was it like for you as a young Chinese American female filmmaker early in your career?
Ruby: It was tough. There weren’t many opportunities for Asian Americans in film business. As a foreign born, it was even harder. It was crucial that during the early 80s, CAAM (formerly NAATA), New York Asian CineVision and Visual Communications in L.A. helped champion the voices of Asian Americans in the mainstream media. As Asian Americans, we have traveled a long journey; the struggle is still on going.
Lia: Did you have mentors when you were first honing your craft?
Ruby: Yes, I am blessed with many mentors in my career. That is so important. Now I am mentoring young documentary filmmakers in Hong Kong and China.
Lia: How did winning an Oscar in the Documentary Short category for The Blood of Yingzhou District in 2006 change your life, your career and your outlook on life?
Ruby: As a documentary filmmaker, you always want to be low-key and be professionally invisible. Winning an Oscar proves to be a problem in China. I am no longer invisible.
Lia: How was My Voice, My Life received in Hong Kong?
Ruby: It made about 6 million Hong Kong dollars (about $700,000 U.S.), which makes it one of the few top-grossing documentaries in Hong Kong. There were over 500 screenings booked by high schools and organizations since the release of the film in October 2014. Many local celebrities have endorsed the film, which brought the attention to the issues discussed in the film to the general audience.
Lia: What have been the top three projects that you have worked on and why?
Ruby: The Warriors of Qiugang documents a group of Chinese villagers that organized to put an end to the poisoning of their land and water. Public participation is beginning to take shape in China but Chinese citizens are facing huge battles ahead.
The Blood of Yingzhou District: HIV/AIDS issue was a taboo subject in China when we started our AIDS public awareness work there in 2004. A lot has changed for the better 10 years after.
Citizen Hong Kong, which explored identity issues of Hong Kong born Chinese. Now (Hong Kong’s) political future is very much on the minds of many Hong Kongers.
Lia: Is there a reason that you gravitate toward documentary filmmaking versus narrative filmmaking?
Ruby: I like documentaries because they bring me to different real-life situations. What’s better than just experiencing life and talking to people about their lives?
Lia: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Ruby: Be curious, patient and draw inspiration from life.
Ruby Yang is a noted Chinese American filmmaker whose work in documentary and dramatic film has earned her an Academy Award, two Academy Award nominations and numerous other international awards, including an Emmy, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Journalism Award and the Global Health Council Media Award.
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and FebOne Blog.