The military government shut down the universities. My father luckily qualified the year before the big clamp-down and left for the UK where he got work as a neurological surgeon. We joined him a year later when mum finally got our travel documents. I was 2.
2 Your film Wait is about a Chinese family struggling to integrate into 1980s New Zealand. Did you draw on your own experience in writing it?
In that sense of separateness you feel as an immigrant. My mother, like the mother in the film, really struggled to integrate. Burma was so isolated back then.. People walked everywhere and made everything by hand. My mother's very domestic and doesn't speak English so her husband and children were her only links to the outside world. Katlyn Wong, who plays the mum in Wait, grew up in 80s New Zealand and had a strong sense of her mother's isolation too.
3 Why is your film called Wait?
The word 'wait' is evocative for me and many asylum seekers because we spent so many years waiting for immigration status. Many of my memories are of waiting on plastic chairs in immigration halls for another stamp on a piece of paper.
3 NZIFF judge Lee Tamahori praised the 'finely tuned performances' in Wait. Was it hard to find the little girl in the lead role?
It took a year and a half. Of the 150 Chinese girls we auditioned in primary schools across Auckland only three were able to reach the emotional terrain needed. They had to be able to genuinely believe the imaginary world we'd created to the point where it was real for them. The girl we chose, Joyena Sun from Gladstone Primary, spoke Mandarin so we shot the film in her language which was a challenge for Katlyn who speaks Cantonese.
4 When did you realise you wanted to be a film maker?
I always wanted to be one, ever since I was a child watching arthouse films on late night television, but in reality I fell into it accidentally. I did a BA at Oxford University and thought about being an academic but found the environment too cloistered. I've always been more interested in exploring human experience. So I did voluntary work at an NGO in Italy for two years taking care of the children of sex slaves. Human trafficking is an issue I'm passionate about. It's prevalent in places like my home country, Burma, where people are so poverty stricken they fall victim to snakehead gangs promising domestic work in Thailand but then selling the girls into forced prostitution.
5 Did you find that work emotionally draining?
At times. The women were Eastern European and African with no immigration status so we took care of their children. The mums would visit when they could but they had gangs patrolling them. It affected the children in different ways. Some were quite wild and energetic. I spent most of my time drawing with an 8-year old Bosnian boy who was very quiet and artistic. I showed him a technique of drawing roses that he loved - they became his symbol. He drew them everywhere.
6 Why did you come to live in New Zealand?
I came with my partner at the time, a Kiwi I met in London. I found New Zealand so welcoming. We entered the 48 Hour Film Competition where I won a scholarship to study film directing and script writing at Unitec. Our film was pretty amateurish but the great thing about that competition is if a story's well told the technical stuff doesn't really matter.
7 What, for you, is the most important element of a good film?
Capturing those really potent moments in life which move you deeply. Those moments where you're going along and they push you in a slightly different direction that over time has a massive impact on your life which you didn't realise at the time. Or even the quotidian, everyday experiences common to us all. I love it when people come up to me after a film and say, "I remember that feeling." Moments well captured in cinema allow people to sink into a memory they might not have thought of for a long time. Like smell or music, they can be so evocative people stop thinking and simply feel.
8 Have you had any mentors in the local film industry?
Sima Urale, my teacher at Unitec. I come from a culture where people don't put themselves out there and call themselves artists. Sima read my work and said, "You're a film maker." She encouraged me to submit my scripts for funding. Mentors are important in giving you a sense your work has value because working alone it's hard to gauge where you fit. I've found the New Zealand film industry supportive, from the Film Commission to the New Zealand film festivals providing a platform for our films to screen alongside the most powerful work from the world.
9 Should films be political?
Britain's Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are among my favourite film makers. I love left-wing writers like Jim Allen, Alan Bleasdale, Paul Laverty and David Simon. People say it's old fashioned to have an opinion but I disagree. To be politically penetrative in a humanist way is the holy grail for me. It doesn't have to be overt, it can be subtle and powerful too. If something is true for you, then say it.
10 What are you working on now?
I'm writing two feature films with Burmese cast. I'd love to travel to Burma to do more research and hopefully film there with local cast and crew. There are some great Burmese documentaries being made now, so I think there's more openness to telling stories from there. I also have the spine of two feature films set in Auckland which I work on a little every time I need to stop on my other projects.
11 Is it harder to write feature films after writing shorts?
Once you're in the flow, it's easier. There's an incredible discipline to the short form. You have to sink people into a world fast and be very evocative.
12 Are you able to be a full-time film maker?
Yes. I live frugally and am lucky to have a great landlord who cares more about people than money. I couldn't afford to do it paying market rent in Auckland. Something they do well in places like Belgium is the artist's dole and free artist-run spaces. As Virginia Woolf said, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." As a country we need to invest in the arts the way we invest in the All Blacks because the arts have so many important things to say about us.
• Find out more at www.showmeshorts.co.nz