Ruby Chan: Taking a film to festivals abroad

What does it take to get a film you’ve made into international film festivals? AMC speaks with Ruby Chan, whose Taiwanese film “Island” was selected for the 2021 Barcelona International Film Festival

Wellington-based Ruby Chan is a dancer and choreographer with strong sentimental and indigenous links to Taiwan. These links led her to make her first film, Island, an abstract dance film set in and shot on the island 160 kilometres off the coast of southeastern China.

“I have always been interested in making films, and I think film as a medium can be easier to reach wider audiences,” says Chan. “Since becoming a mother, I'm no longer able to travel and perform on the international stage as I used to before, and I think dance film gives me another opportunity to continue share my work with no time and space limitations. Despite separated by distance, New Zealand and Taiwan share common indigenous perspectives. I hope that comes through in my film." 

Prior to the creation of Island, Chan worked as a professional dancer and choreographer in various dance companies, the most well-known being Legend Lin Dance Theatre in Taiwan. “I have also been invited to dance at Chinese New Year celebrations at Parliament, various variety shows across New Zealand, and for community events,” she recalls. “I have also taught ‘dunhuang’ style dance (based on the cave paintings in grottos along the ancient Silk Road) to students in Sydney.”

Yet choreographing a dance and making a dance film are very different things, Chan says. “As a choreographer and dancer, the body is the way to express anything you want to say, but it requires many years of movement training and especially in contemporary dance how to let your concept successfully deliver to audience. In contrast, filmmaking requires a much more technical approach - especially an understanding of the tools and techniques necessary for crafting a visual product."  

This presents a grand challenge from the outset: a lot people have no idea what contemporary dance is about, and they struggle to understand or follow what is happening. Naturally, this comes with additional difficulties when making a product for the camera, not a live audience. “I am very lucky that I have met my film director [Ho Pei] who wishes to challenge making a dance film with me,” Chan adds.

Island is a truly international collaborative project. Chan met Ho Pei in Taiwan when she was there visiting her family in 2016 (Ho Pei is based in Taiwan and works as a freelance filmmaker). The pair spent a few months in Taiwan discussing and shooting the film. “After filming, I came back to New Zealand and I had been looking for a composer, and one of my old friends from London (Doriane Woo, who now lives in Paris) suddenly contacted me - she used to be a DJ and during recent years she started making her own music,” she says.

“I sent my draft film to her and asked if she could find someone to compose it, and after watching the film, she actually came out with a melody from her mind. From there, she had a song for Island.”  

Island was sponsored by Chan’s family and friends. “It takes a lot of guts to ask for money actually, because I didn't have any previous films to show and get funding from any association or groups, so I work on the old fashion way to get funds,” she says. “Something that would be helpful going forward is to be better connected with others in the filmmaking community, and to understand how to apply for funding. As I have ventured into film making with little previous experience, finding a mentor would be really helpful.”

"I think dance film gives me another opportunity to continue share my work with no time and space limitations," says Chan | Photo: Supplied

After Chan finished editing Island, she applied as many film festivals as possible to get attention, and uploaded onto Youtube so an international audience could see it for free.

One applies to film festivals online, through different film festival websites. “Some of it cost a lot and some of it cost less (entry fees seem to be a way for these festivals to make money) - so I tried to apply to the one which did not cost too much!” Chan laughs. The process is reasonably straightforward: one uploads a film for selection, writes a description about it, and pays the fee. “You actually need to spend a lot of money applying to get in. I remember I applied to about 15-12 film festivals, and in the end we got selected by four of them.”

Chan’s advice for filmmakers looking to achieve the same is simple. “Choose the film type and genre carefully,” she says, as festival organisers will send you countless e-mails confirming your entry right up until a competition begins. “I think film festival directors and their teams get to decide which films will be selected and shown, so basically you really don't know what they like or are interested in,” Chan adds,  “You just have to keep trying!”

“You just have to keep trying!" says Chan | Photo: Supplied

Island was awarded the Best Short documentary from Best Istanbul Film festival in 2020. Island was also selected by the Barcelona Film Festival. “Our composer Doriane Woo is going to Barcelona [for the festival on 13-18 September] and hopefully we can get an award,” Chan says.

When Chan heard her film had been selected and awarded, this meant rewarding herself, her director, and her composer too! “It has built up my confidence that what we have produced is of interest, and up there with the best,” she says. “Having been selected for four festivals means we are looking at ways to follow up, in terms of a next project.”

- Asia Media Centre