Yu Gu is on I-90 somewhere between Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio, living the life of a busy filmmaker and shooting one movie while on her way to promote another. She's chatty when we speak, explaining that her first name means rain in Chinese. When she immigrated to Canada from China, people advised her to pick an English name, something easier to pronounce, but she refused. She liked her name and what it symbolized. "Water goes everywhere. It always manages to go through obstacles or around obstacles," she says. "Now, as a filmmaker, I feel like it almost reflects in my style of filmmaking. Like this idea of a slow kind of moving of the audience. Maybe you won't feel it in the beginning, but at the end, you will have been brought to a different place, just gradually and slowly."
Her first feature film, Who is Arthur Chu?—the one she's on her way to promote at the Cleveland Film Festival when we speak—is indeed one that slowly reveals itself. The documentary follows Arthur Chu, aka "the Jeopardy Villain," who became a sensation after a nearly $300,000 winning streak on the game show.
Gu co-directed the documentary with Scott Drucker, who she met while they were both students at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. The Los Angeles-based filmmakers, both 33, had been looking to make a movie about someone's interior life.
Drucker, who saw articles about Chu on social media, was the one who initially told Gu about him. She knew nothing about the game show contestant's aggressive playing style that attracted (notably racist) hate on Twitter, and how he went on to write a widely-shared article about nerd culture and misogyny after Elliot Rodger's killing spree. When Gu read the article, she wanted to know more about Chu.
"Here's this super nerdy Asian guy writing about misogyny and sexism in popular culture," she says. "I was like, 'What?!'" Gu found herself surprised that an Asian-American man had spoken so honestly about examining his own sexism. Impressed by his writing about the immigrant experience and fascinated by the polarizing affect he had, Gu bet that there was more to Chu beyond his 15 minutes of game show fame.
She and Drucker shadowed Chu for more than a year, beginning with his final Jeopardy! appearance at the 2014 Tournament of Champions. The next day, they followed Chu to San Jose, California for his first speaking engagement at a tech conference, and continue on as he tries to leave his job as an insurance compliance analyst and reinvent himself as a writer and speaker. Chu's journey puts strain on his personal relationships—especially the one with his father, a strict parent and immigrant who doesn't understand his son's unconventional choices.
Who is Arthur Chu? premiered at Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in January and played last weekend in LA's Asian Pacific Film Festival. Gu describes the film as a portrait of a man trying to cleanse himself of learned toxic masculinity, and the realization that it's not as easy as it might seem. Over the course of making the documentary, Gu says she experienced a feminist awakening. "It took these rosy-colored glasses I had on my eyes away to look at society and how family structures are really based on this patriarchal power," she says. "You can see it in Arthur's family. His grandfather, his father, and him. Passing down this expectation and this pressure is a negative effect of patriarchal culture on men."
In the documentary, Chu speaks honestly about the anger he felt growing up as the child of immigrants, which made Gu reflect on her own upbringing. "Making this film has helped me look at my childhood and my struggles as an immigrant, and look at my relationship with my parents and that generational gap we have," she says.
Though she grew up in a fairly progressive family (she jokes that her parents were essentially Chinese hippies), Gu says it wasn't until the making of the film that she really understood that girls were less valued than boys."It was a little heartbreaking when I realized there was that bias even though I didn't really think that growing up," she says. She was born in China under the one-child policy and her father, an artist,wanted a son. "My dad always tells me this story: When I was born, the doctor called him and told him I was a girl. He fainted. He was disappointed. And then later, he backtracked saying, 'I was sad because it's harder for women to exist in this world and live a good life in this world because the world is unjust.'"
Gu says immigrants and other minority communities often face internal pressure to show only the positive sides of their experiences. "But it's really important to show our struggles, to show our weaknesses and this pain, and some of the tragedies that happen—because that's going to be the thing that makes us stronger in the end," she explains.
Making Who Is Arthur Chu? inspired Gu to further explore narratives of privilege in America. Her next documentary—the one she's on her way to shoot in Buffalo—is called A Woman's Work, and follows former NFL cheerleaders suing the league for wage theft. Gu says American football culture is all about meritocracy and propagating the idea that if you train hard, you can be a champion. And yet, she says, women in the world of football are still taken advantage of and relegated to the bottom rung.
Gu says that as an outsider of football culture, she's gotten a lot of questions about why she's making the film. But she's learned that her experience as an outsider is actually her strength. "We as women, as people of color, we have a different perspective," she says. "We have something to bring to a story that is different and valuable."