Film maker and theatre producer Julie Zhu may not speak much Mandarin, but understanding enough of the language to "eavesdrop" during long bus journeys has seen her come up with a unique concept for a documentary short film.

East Meets East follows Zhu's 79-year-old grandmother, Fang Ruzhen, as she makes new friends during her weekly bus trips to East Auckland's Asian supermarkets. Zhu first noticed elderly Chinese immigrants building a new community for themselves when she caught buses from East Auckland into the city during her university days.

"I understand a lot more Chinese than I speak so I would hear them talking about where they were from, what they were doing in New Zealand, sharing information and getting to know one another," she says. "I realised how they've managed to survive in a new country is by meeting people like them in unexpected places."

Directed by Zhu and produced by Tema Pua, East Meets East is one of ten documentary short films selected for this year's Loading Docs film project. Loading Docs, which started in 2014, helps develop New Zealand film-makers by matching them with mentors to make three minute long films which will "captivate and inspire" audiences.

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Tema Pua and Julie Zhu (right) are making a short documentary film about how elderly migrants make new friends.
Tema Pua and Julie Zhu (right) are making a short documentary film about how elderly migrants make new friends.

This year's theme is diversity and Zhu says East Meets East fits perfectly because it explores issues of relevance to Chinese migrants as well as the elderly.

"Stories about immigrant experiences usually follow a young characters' journey into Western culture and focus on the battle between their home and Western cultures. I wanted to make a film that moved away from that because when we celebrate diversity, we should celebrate the different peoples found within groups.

"We hardly ever see stories that feature the perspectives of our immigrant elders but these stories are just as relevant and necessary to show."

She says like her grandparents, many elderly Chinese people come to New Zealand to help care for their grandchildren while their adult children work. Because they migrate in their 60s, 70s, or 80s, it's almost impossible for them to pick up a new language or try to assimilate in the usual ways.

"My nana's been here for 15 years and while she's tried to learn English, it remains a foreign language to her," says Zhu. "This adds to her isolation, so it's incredible that she and other Chinese grandparents have forged this new source of community for themselves."

Born in China and raised in Auckland, Zhu's already written and directed several short films. She was the director of photography on The Spectacular Imagination of the Pōhara Brothers, which screened in the NZ International Film Festival 2016 and several indigenous film festivals around the world.

"Nana was happy to let me film her - I think she thinks it's just one of those 'little projects' her grand-daughter is working on."

Loading Docs films are freely available to watch online at its website and TVNZonDemand while some of the shorts have been selected for various film festivals in New Zealand and around the world.

All ten selected for 2017 are now crowdfunding at boosted.co.nz. and have until Friday, March 31 to raise $2000. While Zhu and Pua have met this target, they hope to reach $4000 and pay for professional translating services.