Tiffany Hsiung studied film production at Ryerson University and was the recipient of the Norman Jewison Award and the William F. Whites Award for her award-winning short film “Binding Borders,” that screened globally and propelled her to direct the RCI/CBC six-part mini-series on China’s first ever Olympic Games, “A New Face for Beijing.” Tiffany co-created the digital interactive documentary, “The Space We Hold,” which took home a Canadian Screen Award and a Peabody Futures of Media Award for Best Interactive Documentary. Immediately after wrapping her second documentary, she partnered with CBC on “Sing Me a Lullaby.” Hsiung is in production on a short documentary, “Until Further Notice,” commissioned through CBC’s Relief Fund. Tiffany Hsiung’s approach to storytelling is driven by the human condition and the relationship that is built with the people she meets both in front and behind the lens. Despite how emotionally charged her films are, she masterfully embeds humor and levity to bring her audience closer, allowing her stories to be universally accessible. She is in development for her debut feature drama based on “Sing Me a Lullaby.” She sits on the Board of the DOC Canada Ontario chapter and was recently elected as second vice-chair of the Directors Guild of Canada Ontario Executive Board.
Tara Karajica talks to Tiffany Hsiung about short films, women in film and, more importantly, her latest short film, “Sing Me a Lullaby,” that premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Inaugural IMDBPro Short Cuts Share Her Journey Award and has also subsequently won the Best Short Film Award at the 2020 Directors Guild of Canada Awards.
How did you get into filmmaking and what inspires you to make films?
Tiffany Hsiung: My passion for filmmaking stems from growing up and finding safety and serenity in the stories and imagination where films took me. Having parents that worked constantly, I was raised 50% by TV shows and movies. I would drown myself in alternate realities and escaped in stories that transported me to places that felt full of possibilities.
Can you talk about your short film Sing Me a Lullaby?
T.H.: Fifteen years ago, I set out to look for my mother’s birth parents. I was overly ambitious, stubborn and determined to prove everyone who doubted me. Growing up, I wasn’t exactly obedient. I was the middle child, the second daughter in a Chinese family, so pretty much irrelevant in terms of “specialness.” Luckily, my brother relieved some of my bad luck mojo by arriving five years later, giving my dad and the Hsiung family a rightful heir. As the middle child, I had this unshakeable need to carve out my own place, and prove my self-worth, alongside this heavy burden to maintain peace and keep our family together.
Long before I could even see the top of a mah-jong table, I could read a room like a pro poker player. I noticed everything, even when the adults didn’t seem to. I recognized my mother’s quiet, withdrawn demeanor as part of her sought for something that was missing. I’d especially notice this during our bedtime stories, and whenever she sang us lullabies. Witnessing my mother’s yearning would be the catalyst for my mission in the summer of 2005. Unanswered questions hung over our family and my refusing to let them haunt us would be the beginning of Sing Me a Lullaby and my search for my mother’s childhood.
My motto at the beginning of this journey was, “The truth will set you free!” But what if it doesn’t? In fact, what if the truth just makes things worse. Would it be better to go back to not knowing at all? My mother and I have finally come to terms with this question when we went back to Taiwan for Lunar New Year in 2019.
The biggest challenge in making the film was believing for a very long time that I had done something wrong by going on this search for my mother’s birth parents. Turns out I had actually been on the journey all along: In a time where we are revisiting the very foundations of our human existence, my hope is that Sing Me a Lullaby sparks a curiosity for viewers to connect with their own lineage. To see ourselves as part of a longer story arc, to know that they were part of something bigger, and to find lessons in the lives that have come before us.
How do you see the short form today?
T.H.: I feel like short films are finding their place outside of the film festival circuit these days, especially during a time when we are all locked up and binging on content… Unfortunately, that means the general public has a shorter attention span and is cycling through more content and will invest less time on video content. However, I do see an opportunity in making cinematic short content more accessible to a larger audience. My first film was a feature length documentary, The Apology, so when I started making Sing Me a Lullaby, I started appreciating the process that shorts evoked in filmmakers and the incredible discipline to build and structure the story.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today?
T.H.: I want to be optimistic about the future for women in film today. However, the foundation was built off an archaic misogynist mind frame and a part of me feels like band-aid solutions won’t solve the initiate problems that women face both on and off film sets. In many ways, I feel like the overhaul has to happen both on the executive level as well as within the homes of people that raise the next generation.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
T.H.: That is a really difficult question… I don’t think I can answer it… However, I can say as of recent, I discovered my love for Chole Zhao’s work. I have just watched Nomadland and her poetic blend between documentary and fiction was a transportive experience that left me in awe of a part of America and Americans I knew very little about. Chloe masterfully captures the human condition by using the best of both worlds of documentary and fiction to tell us an emotionally compelling story.
What are your next projects?
T.H.: I am excited to be working on my new film, Until Further Notice, a short documentary that follows a Canadian top chef that tries to keep his passion for cooking alive during COVID-19 lockdown even if it means teaching a group of culinary misfits online.
Photo credits: Tiffany Hsiung.
This interview was conducted during the 2020 (virtual) Toronto International Film Festival.