It's hard to think of a better way to kick off our coverage of British Columbia filmmakers at the Vancouver International Film Festival than by interviewing a local filmmaking success story trying something new, and telling an important Vancouver story as she does. Julia Kwan, best known for her Sundance prize-winning feature debut Eve and the Fire Horse, has made a documentary – her first. Everything Will Be is an elegy for the bustling Chinatown of her childhood, now in transition. She profiles 13 locals, mostly elderly Chinese people, but also a proud Italian cheese-shop owner, and local real estate guru Bob Rennie, whose office and private art museum are in the neighbourhood.
When Ms. Kwan was growing up, both of her parents, Chinese immigrants, worked in Chinatown – her father, now 83, at two famous restaurants, the Ho Ho and then Ming's, where he was head waiter. Her mother, now 74, washed and folded sheets at Keefer Laundry, now the Treasure Green Tea Company. One of the businesses profiled in Everything Will Be, the tea shop is where Ms. Kwan and I meet over steaming cups of rich, nutty tea.
What did Chinatown mean to you growing up?
It meant a lot to me as a child because I spent every weekend in Chinatown. I used to take the bus down to Chinatown when I was 11 or 12. In the seventies and eighties it was really vibrant, a bustling community, and the vendors would be screaming [about] their fruits and vegetables – really colourful. I recognized the grittiness of it; I would dodge the drunks on the streets, but it was all very matter of fact. And it really was a community. My mom always seemed so out of her element [elsewhere]. Because to this day, she can't really speak any English. But when she came to Chinatown, she felt at home. And that's why I gravitated towards these people when I was doing my research – the elderly, people in the twilight years.
What led to your decision to make this film?
Chinatown has been on the decline for the last couple of decades. There's multiple factors involved, one of them being proximity to the Downtown Eastside, and also the satellite Chinatowns like Richmond. And so they're having a hard time attracting the youth because people think it's [for] the older generation. There's a perception that it's dirty, it's dangerous. I confess before making this film, whenever friends would say let's go out for Chinese food, we would always pick Richmond, so I realized making this film that I was part of the problem.
Why make a documentary at this stage in your career?
I was approached by a producer at the National Film Board who was looking at making a feature documentary with filmmakers who don't traditionally work in the documentary genre. I said no the first time and then a year later he approached me again and I was more open to it. It was originally going to be a contrast film between Chinatown and satellite Chinatown in Richmond, but as I was doing the research it felt like my heart was in Chinatown more and I felt this great sense of history and community, so I really wanted to explore that, and the changes. One day I was walking down Pender Street, and I counted 20 shuttered shops within a two-block radius, on both sides – knick-knack shops and herbalist shops and green grocers. So I really wanted to make a time capsule of this particular moment in time.
What were some of the challenges or opportunities you found working in this genre?
It was very challenging for me in the sense that making a narrative film is highly constructed and we think in the frame down to the extras. Whereas in a documentary you throw that out the window. You have to work in a really organic way. It's very challenging not having a script to work from. Although I attempted to write a script, but that was silly. It didn't work. I gave it to my DP and he just laughed; he said this is never going to happen. And it's a small group. Whereas with Eve I think we had 80 people on set and here at one point I was the camera person. I haven't done that since university.
What are you working on now?
I'm scurrying back to narrative. I have a script for a drama that I'm developing right now. But you know what? I absolutely think that this experience has made me a better storyteller. Just to be open to other possibilities and to really work in an organic way and to really think about story all the time and to recognize authentic moments.
Do you think you'll make another documentary?
I think I will. Yes. Eventually.
Any advice for other narrative filmmakers who want to try working in documentary?
Be prepared and be empathetic; I think those are two very important things. You're dealing with real people so make sure that you respect the people that you're working with.
When you come here now you must experience it so differently. So many people must know you.
It's like King of Kensington, right? Or Cheers; I sit here at the bar and people come in and I recognize everybody. I feel like part of the community.
What do your parents think of this project?
I studied at Ryerson in Toronto and I wanted to be a writer originally, a screenwriter, so I told my parents that and I moved to Toronto. And one day my sister calls me and she says, 'You know mom and dad think you're studying calligraphy. You know that, right? You'd better call and explain what you're doing.' They had no idea what I did. Now my parents are ailing and they're old so I feel like this is almost like a film for them because this might be the last of mine that my parents see, especially my dad. He's got Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. So this film is a tribute to them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Everything Will Be screens at VIFF Sept. 29, Oct. 1 and Oct. 3.