A-Yi, Directed by Martyna Czaplak
When a group of friends moved into their traditional East Vancouver home eight years ago, they couldn’t have known about a new mysterious roommate, a staple of the neighbourhood, who slowly occupied the empty spaces around their home and then their hearts. A-Yi (Auntie, in Cantonese) collects cans at all hours and tends to the garden that she has built on their rented property, where she also operates her personal ’bottle depot‘. With the help of a translator, the housemates finally get a chance to communicate with A-Yi, straightening out hilarious assumptions and, most importantly, letting her know that they’re moving out. What will A-Yi do once they’ve gone?
A-Yi will take you on a journey of friendship, familiarity and storytelling that will warm your heart. We connected with the director of A-Yi, Martyna Czaplak, about her work on the CBC Digital Original Short.
Tell us about A-Yi and your process and influence in the creation of the film.
I met A-Yi when I moved into the Whale House about 7 years ago. Over the years, she not only stored her cans under the deck, but also started a huge vegetable garden on the property. Because we didn’t share a common language, we couldn’t communicate any other way besides using our hands and feet, and over the years my roommates and I found ourselves wanting to find out more about her. Google translate was not an option for the unique dialect of Cantonese she spoke as we discovered over multiple attempts to communicate through the app. Back then I didn’t work in film and didn’t have the tools or resources to make a documentary. Fast forward 5 years, I had changed my career and worked on a number of films in different departments, as well as started a production company with my husband. In January of 2019, the last of the original roommates moved out and this marked the end of an era at the Whale House. I had a sense of urgency to tell this story before everyone left, including A-Yi, who was told to take down her garden once everyone moved out. We weren’t sure what the future would hold for the house, the garden, and A-Yi and the chaos of the Whale House being emptied out was the perfect visual setting for the film so I grabbed a little Handycam we had around and captured those early moments. A little after, I approached Gregory Czaplak and Nicolas Ayerbe Barona with my idea and started building my production team. With the help of translators and cultural advisors April Liu and Dong Yue Su, we were finally able to communicate via spoken language for the very first time. And so our documentary began.
Tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I moved here from Germany in 2007 to pursue a career in the snowboard industry. Little did I know, I would end up becoming a filmmaker after a freak accident on a bicycle. I worked in different departments starting out in art and moving to Camera as an Assistant Camera and then into Post as an Assistant Editor. In 2018, I started a production company with my husband (www.adanacfilms.ca – coming soon!). That same year, I began working for the Documentary Organization of Canada, BC Chapter. Working for DOC BC allowed me to dive into the documentary world; understanding funding structures and building my network. This led us to pitch A-Yi to the CBC/Creative BC digital production fund.
What were the early days of your career like? How did you get to where you are now?
I would say that I am still in the early days of my career in above-the-line positions like producer and director. I started out in multiple departments on set, which I see as a blessing, as it gave me the ability to understand the many moving parts of a film and the importance of each and every one of these positions. Being able to create and express myself through the medium of film became important to me as I was learning and working in all these departments at the service of someone else’s vision. I am lucky to be surrounded by talented filmmakers who are guiding and mentoring me on a journey to find my voice in the documentary world. Working for DOC BC has given me the opportunity to build a great network of inspiring people who are always willing to share their wisdom, encourage, and support me when things get tough.
What inspires you as a creator? What are your influences?
When I first moved to Canada 13 years ago I found it difficult at first to know my place. Very soon I noticed I was just one of many immigrants in this multicultural country. I was fascinated by how different cultures seemed to live together so seamlessly in micro-neighborhoods in Vancouver. I was inspired to dig deeper and find stories that are never spoken of but should be told. In this sea of catastrophic topics (be it political, environmental, or crime-related), I am here to tell the stories that are meant to leave you smiling and seeing the good in everyday life. I am also inspired by my badass female filmmaker friends, who are constantly pushing to create wonderful content, be it in directing, camera, producing, or working in any other department. In this male-dominated industry, it is them who open up doors and create opportunities for all of us – you know who you are :).
What impact do you hope to achieve with those who watch A-Yi?
This film was made to showcase how beautiful friendships can flourish despite language, age, and cultural barriers, so long as people treat each other with respect and kindness. I want to provoke people to create community, to meet and know each other with curiosity rather than judgment. But most of all, in this sea of documentaries that deal with harsh and devastating topics, I want this to be a bright and positive experience that leaves you with a feeling of connection and perhaps makes you shed a cheeky happy tear. Since our documentary has been released, we have received an overwhelming amount of comments, many of which were quite emotional and triggered some wonderful memories of other A-Yis.
Here are a couple of our favourite comments from YouTube where over 180,000 people have watched the film so far:
“Stories like this make me proud to be a Canadian, that’s what being Canadian is all about. It just shows we have so much we can learn from each other and so much we can learn about ourselves. This is a great story in a troubling time, it helps to remind us who we are and what we can be.”
“My heart is so full from this! Love this story and the local content.”
“My nana was from Guangdong as well. When I was born, she quit her job to stay home and take care of me so my mom could go back to work. She passed away in 2016. This video brings it all back for me. I still love her. I miss her. Cherish the moments you have with your elderly family and friends while you can. Ask all the questions you can. Because if you don’t, and they pass away, you’ll regret not taking the chance to talk to them more.”
“This is so wholesome. I’m gonna cry. Finally watching something about the young in North America being so nice to an old Chinese grandma. It just shows you that language isn’t a difficult barrier to cross if you’re sincere and open-minded.”
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?
Be prepared to work hard! As in every other aspect of life, everyone has personal opinions and not everyone will like what you make – be ready to be rejected and sometimes even criticized. When I nervously pitched my idea for the first time, I was told that this movie would never be funded and no one would want to watch it, yet here we are. I took this opinion as a challenge to improve my work. I think constructive criticism and opinions can be painful at times, but don’t ever let them discourage you from doing what you love, but rather take them and make your project better, your pitch stronger, and your voice louder. Also, in documentaries, sound is your best friend :).
Are there any other upcoming projects or initiatives you’re working on?
Yes, there is some exciting stuff coming down the pipeline, which I cannot fully discuss yet. Let’s just say that my husband Greg and I have been busy working on development during the quarantine. Small hint: it has something to do with the Night Skies. Look out (or up)! Other than that, we are just excited to continue building our portfolio for Adanac Film Production Inc. , not only in documentary but also in narrative and commercial, offering pre, production, and post-production services.
Are you doing any innovative creating from home during this time?
It is a great time to pick up on those old projects that have been set aside due to work. We are both working on scripts at the moment, which will hopefully lead to some short and feature films in the future. I’m taking this time to build our demo reel, a new website, develop and pitch new projects for production next year. Aside from film, we have become avid balcony gardeners, and apartment furniture movers and gourmet cooks.