Li uses the camera as a confessional to confront cultural, generational and language barriers head-on, recalling her feelings of disdain for her mother’s limited English and addressing her assimilation to Canadian culture.
The raw, candid conversation was captivating enough to garner interest from The New Yorker, who eventually licensed the rights to the film. Li credits the camera for the film’s authenticity.
“The camera was the reason me and my mom were able to have the conversation with so much depth,” she said. “That’s why filmmaking is so magical. Being in front of the screen broadened my own courage and allowed me to talk to my mom about difficult things from my childhood.”
Li’s impatience when battling language barriers with her mother stemmed from the extracurricular duties she was forced to take on as a child. Born in Canada, Li jumped back and forth between living in China and Canada for the first 10 years of her life. At a young age, she assimilated to Canadian culture quicker than her parents, which meant she spoke better English. She recalls reaching out to businesses to pay phone bills and calling the government annually to ensure her family’s taxes were filed on time.
“Sometimes it didn’t feel fair that I had to take on a lot of the English duties as a child,” she admits. “I was surrounded by other kids’ parents who grew up in Canada and were extremely integrated into society. My family wasn’t, so I had to do more.”
“It took time for me to embrace my Chinese culture. As a kid, I would act like my Chinese was worse than it actually was. I would try and speak English more. And then I was like, ‘why am I doing that?’ I should really take pride that I’m Chinese. Embrace it.”
But despite all of the difficulties she faced during her formative years, Li’s childhood has made her the force she is today. The ambitious, high-achiever is a recent graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University’s film studies program. Her padded résumé already includes film director, producer, event planner, film festival co-chair, and executive director. As the Image Arts Festival co-chair, she reimagined a quaint student-run event into a multi-day festival open to the public, wrought with day shows, night-time screenings at the Cinesphere, and master classes led by renowned filmmakers and organized social events.
Organizing the festival as the co-chair and executive director often felt like a full-time job, yet Li still found time to shoot and submit her next project to the festival. The upcoming documentary will explore similar cultural themes to Have You Eaten? where she discusses her Chinese heritage, this time with her father.
“It took time for me to embrace my Chinese culture,” she said. “As a kid, I would act like my Chinese was worse than it actually was. I would try and speak English more. And then I was like, ‘why am I doing that?’ I should really take pride that I’m Chinese. Embrace it.”