Sky Yang and Benjamin Bainbridge on a deeply personal project that began as a poem about racism and became a call out to people of East / South East Asian heritage that resonated
Sunny is the first short film that Sky Yang and Benjamin Bainbridge have made together, having been friends since school.
They worked with what they had - a balloon, papier mache, a lot of passion and a Sony A7 - and they’ve created a tremendously affecting and nuanced piece about racism. It’s very close to Sky’s heart - he performed and wrote the piece, Ben shot it and then Sky edited it together over lockdown. It tells the story of a Chinese boy moving from childhood to adolescence, lost in a world that tells him he should hate where he comes from.
Sky and Ben also launched ‘This Is Our Youth’ a few weeks ago, with the opening idea of being a diverse group of young artists who pool together their skills, allowing them to tell the stories they want to tell without having to compromise their voice. When possible, they plan on using the films to elevate the status of charities - for Sunny they chose End the Virus of Racism.
LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Sky and Ben about this emotional endeavour that’s already struck a chord with many people.
LBB> When did you first have a thought that you'd like to make this film?
Sky> As soon as writing the poem ‘Sunny’. I wanted to make it into a film because I wanted to try to reach people who were possibly feeling and thinking the same things as me. I guess it was quite a natural thing - I’ve written a piece of where I’m at. Does anyone else feel like this? I was in a place where I wanted to call out to people. I’d always been so drawn to the visuals and films that Ben made at school, so it was pretty obvious what I had to do if I wanted to make it.
Ben> We went to the same school, Sky was this incredible actor a couple years older than me and I was making films here and there. We'd always gone off on lengthy conversations about films and cinema on bus rides home. Since then we’d really always wanted to get together and create something, Sky had developed this beautiful and important piece of writing, Sunny, and I was immediately captivated.
LBB> What was the writing process like? How did you organise your thoughts into a script?
Sky> I first wrote a poem called ‘Made In Anger’ when I was in a slightly rough place. It was a pure and untapped expression of how much I was hurting. It was in your face, loud and rough. I guess in some ways it was a call to arms to myself. Why was I so ashamed of where I came from? Why did I feel so isolated and alone? Why did I allow people, friends and strangers, to be racist to me?
I returned to it a few months later, and shaped it into a narrative about someone else. A boy called Sun, (or Sunny), named after Sun Yat-Sen [former president of the Republic of China]. I lifted pieces from 'Made In Anger' as Sunny’s thoughts, and started to try to form his relationship with the world, and the people around him, or lack thereof. This being said, I went back and forth with a lot of different versions, second guessing myself constantly. At one point it was going to be formed into an interview with Sunny, no spoken word. But it felt wrong - I ended up with what came first - the feelings through poetry.
LBB> The subject is obviously extremely personal but also a broad message that many can relate to. What did you want to say with the film originally?
Sky> I think it’s best described with a line that was eventually cut from the final edit - now, it’s more the message of the whole piece. “Someone please tell me where the fuck’s our pride?” I wanted you to follow a boy called Sunny past the early years of his life, where he was uninhibited by his race, to his place of insecurity, to his realisation that he comes from a place where he can be proud of, finally into what hints at what could be his ‘rebirth’. I wanted people who look like me to hear the words and feel empowered.
LBB> And then how did that change as you worked in the visuals to accompany your words?
Ben> The words are an expression of Sunny’s experience and the aim was to turn that into a window into Sunny’s head, to transport people deep into Sunny’s mind and experience. In terms of cinematography, we wanted the camera to see the world how Sunny does, a meditation on Sunny’s changing experience from youth to adulthood. In terms of editing and pacing, we wanted to communicate the thoughts Sunny was having in the way that reflects their reality, something which changes as Sunny does. Loneliness is a deeply psychological emotion which is something we wanted to evoke through the pacing, and the visual image of the mask.
LBB> What were the key moments in the production process? What will you remember most?
Sky> I think the response we got while walking around Central London in a giant yellow mask. People stared. People pointed. People laughed. People crossed the street. Pretty obvious why - because it’s a guy in a huge mask that’s bright yellow and you don’t see that every day. But that’s how people can treat people who look different to them. It touched on the idea of ‘foreignness’, and the shame associated with that. Even though it was framed within the context of being East / South East Asian, I hope it applies to anyone who is ‘other’, who doesn’t feel like they fit into the boxes that we all try so hard to push ourselves into.
LBB> What was most challenging for you?
Sky> Putting it into the world. I went back and forth on the edit. I think I did about five drafts. Different ways of telling the story, different words, different style of film. I even tried bits of stop motion. I think I just wasn’t ready to release it when we filmed it, which was around a year and a half ago. Or maybe I was just scared to put it out and release it.
Ben> Within the shoot itself; we wanted to reflect the loneliness that Sunny is overwhelmed by and captured him in an empty central London, which otherwise would be heaving. It was an intense few days but deeply worthwhile and allowed us to really immerse ourselves in the world. For a large proportion of the shoot the crew consisted of just Sky and myself which gave us the freedom to really experiment, improvise and try a lot of different things out, that freedom was definitely overwhelming at times, but also very freeing, and something which was very important in allowing us get what we did.
LBB> Are there any parts of the film that you're particularly pleased with? A shot, a line or a moment that you think turned out well?
Sky> Shot wise, I’ve got to say I couldn’t believe what Ben ended up producing. It was beyond what I had visualised. I couldn’t help feeling that his sensitivity with a camera is so attuned to people's energies. The shot which is a pull out from a close up on Sunny’s eye, with a red background will forever be my favourite shot. For me, it symbolises what the whole piece was about in such a bold and graphic way - it really felt like the feelings of the whole piece could have been captured in that one shot, which I love. A little microcosm of the whole film.
In terms of writing, I can’t really think of a line in particular, but I’ll shout this one out because I think it’s interesting. “Living with the Lams, the Lams go to slaughter, it’s The Silence Of The Lambs, while white writers portray the tropes that they taught us”. I doubt it’s a reference many people who aren’t BESEA actors and writers (British East and South East Asian) would get. It was a show that was being developed by CBBC that perpetuated unbelievably backwards stereotypes, centred around a Chinese family called the Lams, running a takeaway restaurant. There were almost no East Asian writers on board - only one individual who was a ‘cultural consultant’. A spokesperson from the BBC responded saying that they do not appoint writers “based solely on their cultural affiliations or nationality”, but that they were still “confident” they would create a show that reflected the community. How on earth could anybody create a show that reflects a community if they are not a part of that community whatsoever? And the fact it was a children’s show that would have continued already problematic stereotypes that BESEA children are already bullied for was unbelievably hurtful. It comes from a long history of white writers writing two-dimensional roles that place the 'exotic' East Asian into a damaging box. A history that has created and generated the racism towards East Asians that we see today.
LBB> How have people reacted to it and how do you feel about it now it's out there?
Sky> The response has been so mad. Purely because of how much people have reached out to us to tell us how it made them feel. When putting it out, I genuinely didn’t know if anyone felt the way I did. That’s why it was Sunny’s ‘Journey Into Loneliness’. Turns out Sunny wasn’t alone. I just feel so happy people have got something from it, and so grateful to everyone who took the time and space to watch it.
Ben> It‘s been amazing to release it and let it exist. It really feels like people have had their own deeply unique experiences with the film and what it means to them which is really incredible to hear.
LBB> Can you tell us about This Is Our Youth? What is it and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Sky> This Is Our Youth is a young collective and community of artists and friends who just want to make passionate work together. Money and ego hold no place there, it’s just about making things we vibe with. Everyone on the cast and crew plays multiple roles in making the films.
We really want to strive to tell the stories that aren’t being produced by the mainstream media, and don’t get touched upon - and tell them in ways that are experimental, off the wall, and a lot more playful than anything big budget can manage. We put the artist and their voice and vision first, so they can make something that is true to what they intended.
And please, keep an eye peeled for upcoming projects.