Life after film school: an interview with SFU alumna Emily Bayrock

Recent SFU film school graduate Emily Bayrock discusses her grad film and the unknown medical affliction it’s about

Virgo Rising is about a young woman’s experience with an unknown medical condition. Image courtesy of Emily Bayrock / Virgo Rising.

By: Alison Wick, Peak Associate

2019 graduates of the SFU School of Contemporary Arts’ film program showcased their graduating films back in May, which The Peak had the opportunity to attend and cover. Four months later, The Peak caught up with alumna Emily Bayrock to talk about her grad film Virgo Rising and her future plans for both the film and herself. The film is a short “hybrid-fiction” that follows a narrative story about a young woman coming to terms with unknown chronic pain later identified as vulvodynia and layers it with interview testimonials about real women’s experiences with the condition. Emily discusses the affliction, the power of community to fight silence and build strength, and the power of film to do both.

The Peak: Can you talk a bit about the film and how it began? Was this a project you had wanted to make for a while or did you kind of happen upon the idea? For those who don’t know, would you explain what vulvodynia is and why you think people know/talk so little about it? I myself had never heard of it until I watched your film.

Emily Bayrock: About two years ago I was diagnosed with vulvodynia, which is basically a chronic vaginal pain condition. About 16% of people with vaginas experience chronic pain in their vulvar area. No one knows how it starts or how to cure it simply because there’s not enough funding designated to explicit[ly] research on this condition. At first I had a lot of trouble dealing with it, simply because there was so little information available. Like you, I had never heard of vulvodyina before, and everything I researched made me really scared for my future. I even had doctors tell me I would never have a normal sex life and I would never be able to wear jeans comfortably again. Eventually, I was admitted into the Multidisciplinary Vulvodynia Program at [Vancouver General Hospital] and got to meet a cohort of women going through the same things I was going through. This clinic coincided with the beginning of my fourth year in the film program at SFU, so I thought making a film about my experience as my thesis project could help other women going through the same thing.

P: You describe your film as “hybrid-fiction” as it weaves together narrative and documentary storytelling. Can you talk about this choice of style and genre for this film/subject? What, for you, is the advantage or purpose of this kind of storytelling?

EB: I’ve always been interested in narrative storytelling. [For] as long as I can remember I’ve been writing short stories, performing in plays, and making films. However, when I started university I decided to minor in anthropology and took courses in documentary filmmaking that really broadened my idea of what exactly a narrative film is. I originally wrote the script for Virgo Rising as a narrative piece, but it felt a little too staged. I really wanted the concepts being expressed in this film to remain true to life and for audiences to know that this is a real condition that people experience every day. 

I was drawn to and inspired by other hybrid-fiction, ethnographic, and explicitly feminine works from filmmakers such as Sophy Romvari, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Catherine Breillat, and Stanley Kwan (specifically his 1991 film Center Stage). I think the docufiction style opens the film up to allow some breathing room and grounding in reality. Plus, it’s an interesting genre to see in a short film. Merging styles is typically something reserved for longer works, but there’s no reason you can’t push those same stylistic conventions in a short.

P: What do you wish for people to take away from the film? How do you want viewers and audience members to interact with the film?

EB: More than anything I want people who watch this film to feel like they’re not alone. When you have intimate pain it can be so overwhelming, especially since it’s not something people talk about. Had I seen a film about vulvodynia, maybe I would have gone to the doctor sooner because I would have known that sex wasn’t supposed to be that painful yep, that punch [scene in the film] is a true story or maybe I would have felt like I wasn’t tackling all of this on my own. I want to bring that sense of community and empathy to others. I think there’s something in this film for everyone, whether you’re dealing with vulvodynia, know someone who is, or just want to watch a movie about what it’s like to be a young woman. I also really like teen movies. I think they’re fun and heartfelt and I want to bring that trend back.

P: What are your plans for the film now after graduation? Are you hoping to bring the film to festival circuits or are you intending for people to see it in a more local setting (i.e. using it for conversations and education about vulvodynia, in schools or small community screenings)?

EB: Right now the film is in consideration on the festival circuit, but we haven’t had our premiere yet. That being said, Virgo Rising has done exceptionally well in competitions. It won awards from both the Accolade Competition and the Impact Docs Award; it won Best Student Film and was a runner-up for Best Screenplay at Festigious; and it was just selected as a semi-finalist at the Los Angeles CineFest.

Also, Maria Yanagisawa, who plays Tina in the film, was just nominated for a Joey Award for her performance! It’s been really exciting to see this film recognized, as it’s definitely a hard one to place in a festival lineup. We’ve had our fair share of rejections, but that’s all part of the process. 

I would love to see this film used as part of education! That’s something I hadn’t considered and will definitely be looking into once the festival circuit comes to a close.

P: How do you think film functions as education and discussion, as opposed to just entertainment? Do you feel this is an important distinction to make as a filmmaker, or do you feel the art of film is more fluid than this?

EB: I hope that Virgo Rising functions as both! I definitely wanted this film to be more than just a documentary on vaginal health. I love documentary filmmaking and I would love to do more of it, but when dealing with subject matter like this I felt it was important not to isolate the audience. Oftentimes documentary films aren’t accessible to all moviegoers. People are scared that they won’t understand the subject matter or that the film will be boring. I think the benefit of using a hybrid style for this film is that it functions very clearly as a story following a character. That being said, in opening the film up from a straight narrative piece, the audience is given a little bit of breathing room as well as a chance to understand that vulvodynia is a condition affecting real women in their lives. I think that’s an important message for not only people with vaginas, but for their partners as well. 

P: I have to ask about the title of the film — is it a reference to the character’s rising sign or a reference, more generally, to her resiliency and the ways she responds to her situation?

EB: Haha — I get this question a lot. No one has ever asked about my sign more than since this film came out. The title Virgo Rising originally came from a play on the word virgin. In the film, Tina is still a virgin in her twenties and feels like she’s falling behind from the rest of her peers. The rising comes from her trying to catch up and eventually achieving personal and emotional growth. 

However, Tina is a Virgo rising that’s why Brenda’s boyfriend pegs her as a Virgo immediately. My best friend is an Aries sun with a Virgo rising, and the driven-yet-careful and meticulous personality traits I see in her I included in Tina. I truly think the astrology scene is the funniest thing I’ve ever written.

P: What are your plans for yourself and your career after graduation? Are you interested in continuing to use film as an entry point for critical discussion and awareness, or are you looking to work in other areas of film and on other kinds of projects?

EB: Oh man, the classic question for new grads. I definitely want to continue on the path of hybrid-fiction and ethnographic filmmaking. Anthropology had such an effect on me as I was completing my minor that I know it’s something I want to explore further. Right now I’m participating in the 2019 VIFF Mentorship Program and I’m really excited to learn from and work with other emerging artists and figure out where exactly to go next. I’m also finding myself heading back to my roots in theatre by helping facilitate some new works premiering in Vancouver. I’m really just taking things one step at a time! Making more films is definitely part of the plan.

P: Finally, where can people see the film?

EB: We haven’t had our premiere yet! So if any festival programmers are reading this . . . 

As of right now, everyone can view the full trailer online and we hope to be screening somewhere soon!

Emily Bayrock will be officially premiering Virgo Rising at the Chilliwack Independent Film Festival on November 23 and 24. Check out emilybayrock.com for more information on her work.