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Learning to Breathe

Jessica Yu
Dress for Success: Filmmaker Jessica Yu shows off her Oscar.

Gunn High School grad Jessica Yu returns with an Oscar

By Todd S. Inoue

It's all in the upbringing. When 31-year-old filmmaker Jessica Yu, who recently won an Academy Award for her documentary "Breathing Lessons," was a student at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, she and her siblings exerted creative control over their bathroom, adorning the walls with mannequin heads, buttons, records, fliers and other weird found objects.

"Every time we go back, it changes," says Yu, calling from her Inscrutable Films office in Los Angeles. "It gets cleaned up. The funny thing was when my grandma would stay with us, she would use that bathroom. There's just something very sweet about seeing your grandmother washing up at a bathroom sink with a doll's head hanging over her."

Unlike other high-pressure Asian American parents, Yu's folks indulged her creative ways, tolerating interior decoration, aiding and abetting fireworks purchases and dissuading Jessica from attending law school.

"When I graduated from college, I had no idea what I wanted to do," says Yu, who was an English major at Yale. "[My parents] never gave the career advice that other Asian American kids were getting. A bunch of my friends were going to law school, and when I asked my dad if I should go too, he said, 'Don't go to law school.' "

A wise choice. After leaving Yale, Yu did film production work in San Francisco, mostly on commercials. She transferred to a bigger production company in L.A. and began to make short features.

Her 1993 short "Sour Death Balls" was followed by "Home Base: A Chinatown Called Heinlenville," "Iron Silk" and "Men of Reenaction" (a documentary about Civil War buffs). She was the associate producer on the Oscar-nominated Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember and the 1995 Academy Award winner, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

"Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien," which won this year's Oscar for best short documentary feature, profiles a Berkeley poet and journalist who has been confined to an iron lung since contracting polio when he was 6. Using his teeth and a rubberized pencil tip, O'Brien writes essays about the world as seen through the eyes of a severely disabled person.

Sandy Close, from Pacific News Service, suggested that Yu make the film. At first, Yu didn't think she was the right person, but when she read O'Brien's book, Breathing, she changed her mind.

"Soon as I read his poetry, I was bowled over," remembers Yu. "He has a unique perspective. By the time I met him, I was dying to do the film. He's had some bad experiences with media. He was worried that he would be another, as he puts it, a 'Cripple of the Week' story."

Mark O'Brien
Undying Spirit: Mark O'Brien, the subject of Yu's documentary, is confined to but in no way limited by his iron lung.

Independent Living

Not so. There are no teary journalists weeping over O'Brien, no sugarcoating or tampering with the ending. Exploitation never enters the equation. Issues of sex, disabled rights, media portrayals and dehumanization are honestly examined.

The film also stresses the benefits of independent living. During one sequence, O'Brien states that it costs $5,000 a month to live in a nursing home filled with surly attendants, while it costs only $1,900 to live in his own apartment with attendants he can pick and choose.

"I knew what he wanted to say, what areas he wanted to enter," Yu says. "I felt we were going into it as a team. 'This is your life--there are certain things you want to explore, and I want to explore. Tell me, because I don't want you to cringe when you see it.' Mark said, 'Whatever you need to do.'

One scene depicting Mark's daily routine was snapped at a moment's notice. "O'Brien is very self-conscious about his body," says Yu. "He was being washed and didn't want the cameras in there. No problem. Two minutes later, his attendant invites us in and Mark's lying there completely naked. He decided spontaneously to allow the cameras in. That was brave of him, and it was a decision I couldn't make."


Breathing Lessons webpage.

Mark O'Brien's webpage.


Dress for Success

Yu is currently in production on another documentary, about an art museum located inside a mental institution in New York called the Living Museum. Meanwhile, Oliver Stone's Illusion Entertainment is interested in producing a feature film based on O'Brien's life.

Yu weighs Stone's interest carefully. "I'm not desperate to make it at all costs," she says. "There have been no warning signs, like, 'At the end, Mark walks!' I want to maintain integrity over the project. I would definitely direct."

The Oscar statue currently resides on the floor of her office. "It sounds sacrilegious, but I've been taking it out to events," Yu tells me. "I still haven't figured out where to put it. It's either too disrespectful--the floor--or too showy, like a trophy case. Maybe I'll give it to my parents; they'll know what to do with it."

Reactions to the now-famous line from her acceptance speech ("You know you've entered into new territory when you realize your dress costs more than your film") provide another source of amusement.

"Everything I had on was borrowed," Yu reveals. "People sent me cards saying, 'Whatever you paid for this dress, it was worth it.' They think I actually bought it!"

Breathing Lessons and Sour Death Balls show Sunday (May 25) at 7:30pm at Spangenberg Auditorium, Gunn High School, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto. A dialogue with Jessica Yu will follow. The evening is a benefit for the Phoenix Fund to help replace Gunn High School's art materials and supplies, which were damaged by fire. Tickets are $10/$25.

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