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by Greta Yeoman

Breaking down cultural and social barriers is the driving force behind the work of award-winning film-maker Pietra Brettkelly.

The New Zealand director’s new film Yellow is Forbidden stars Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei – who she spontaneously decided to contact several years ago.

Guo Pei and parents

The daughter of a communist soldier and primary school teacher, who grew up with no idea about fashion, hit the global fashion headlines in 2015 for her intricately bejewelled and embroidered design worn by pop star Rihanna to the Met Gala in the United States.

“It always excites me, as brutal as this film industry is . . . these stories are meant to be captured.” – Pietra Brettkelly

“The Rihanna thing had just happened,” Brettkelly said of her initial approach to the reclusive designer, who had no idea who the star was who had just worn one of her designs.

“That really interested me,” Brettkelly said.

She contacted the designer’s staff just after “the Rihanna thing”, and despite reservations from Pei’s staff about the designer’s private nature, Brettkelly and cameraman Jacob Bryant flew to China that Sunday to approach her – four days after the initial call.

From the initial meeting with Guo Pei, the film-making duo spent two years on the film, capturing Pei’s attempt to break into the exclusive French fashion world of Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris.

“We did 14 blocks of filming in six countries.”

A still from Yellow is Forbidden

“It always excites me, as brutal as this film industry is . . . these stories are meant to be captured.”

Despite contracting other people to edit the film, Brettkelly says she was heavily involved in the post-production process.

“I know every word of the film.”

She insists collaboration is the best option for a film, enabling other people to share their ideas for a project.

The director’s previous award-winning films include A Flickering Truth, about film preservation in Afghanistan, Maori Boy Genius, starring New Zealand teen activist Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, and The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, which follows New York-based artist Vanessa Beecroft as she attempts to adopt Sudanese twins.

One of Guo Pei’s designs on the catwalk

Brettkelly says she always hopes her films can inspire someone to think differently about people in the world.

“Diversity is to be celebrated.”

Her projects always aim to “break down barriers” between people, cultures, genders and races.

She says a lot of the issues in the world today, particularly around racism and sexism, are because people are not always aware of how other people live.

“People don’t open their mind up to another person.”

Yellow is Forbidden is screening in Timaru as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, which opened on Thursday. The film will screen at Movie Max Timaru at noon on August 23 and at 3.45pm on August 26.