Raised by a single mother, Lucretia Stinnette learned to be independent early in life. From the age of 9, she was already taking two subways daily to get to her elementary school, located nearly an hour away from her own North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago. Evenings were typically spent alone, since her mother worked two jobs to make ends meet, often coming home in the early morning hours.

This unfettered childhood led Stinnette, now a fourth-year graduate filmmaker at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television (TFT), to become “very self-sufficient and not afraid of anything,” capable of traveling alone without hesitation to such exotic locales as Mongolia, Cuba and Nepal.

It was during a stay in Seoul, South Korea, where she worked as an English teacher, when Stinnette first encountered the women who would later become the inspiration for her short film, “Quyen.” It’s a project close to her heart, one that has brought Stinnette numerous accolades, including a 2014 Princess Grace Graduate Film Scholarship from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA. Stinnette was one of six awardees in the foundation’s film category who were honored at a gala last month at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

UCLA graduate student filmmaker Lucretia Stinnette

“Lu's work is consistently among the very best at TFT — and Lu herself is a committed, humanistic filmmaker who, we felt, exemplified the qualities the foundation was looking for,” said professor Becky Smith, one of Stinnette’s mentors on the project, who nominated Lu for the prestigious award. 

“Quyen,” which means “bird” in Vietnamese, is the story of a young Vietnamese woman who is adjusting to an arranged marriage in South Korea, a country where a declining female population, particularly in the countryside, has spurred a thriving mail-order bride industry backed by the Korean government. (Ancillary businesses, such those that teach foreign women how to be “good Korean wives” before they even set foot in the country, have sprung up as well.) International marriages have tripled since 2003, and most of the women who enter into arranged marriages do so for economic stability. In 2012, 9% of marriages in South Korea were to foreign nationals, unusual in a country where unions with non-Koreans were once rare.

Like most Westerners, Stinnette was initially put off by the concept. However, after she began teaching English to these women — who primarily came from Vietnam, China and Cambodia — she became a sympathetic observer. While there were some who were abused and abandoned, the majority of mail-order brides she encountered were treated well, loved their children and doted on their husbands. When the time came for Stinnette to create her short film at TFT a few years later, she knew she had to return to South Korea to tell the fictional story of one woman’s experience.

It was a “huge, risky decision” to film “Quyen” there, Stinnette said, citing costs and the seven weeks she worked there during winter quarter 2013, but the risk paid off: The response to the film has been nothing short of fantastic, earning her additional accolades, including the Lynn Weston Fellowship in Film, the Women in Film Foundation/Verna Fields Memorial Fellowship and the Four Sisters Scholarship in Directing.

“’Quyen’ is a deceptive film,” said professor Smith. “It feels small and simple as you begin to watch it, filled with silences and simple interactions. But it is a film where each moment, and every line of dialogue, builds subtly to a sympathetic and complex picture. Lu manages to make us sympathetic to [her characters] and their personal struggles.”

Stinnette said of her filmmaking style: “I like telling stories about people who make difficult decisions, looking at why they make those decisions and allowing the audience to understand and get a window into their psyche. I like subverting stereotypes and challenging people to think about things differently than they thought about them before.”

Finding her way behind the camera

 Stinnette's route to becoming filmmaker was somewhat circuitous. She was already a film buff when she was an undeclared freshman at the University of Southern California in 2000, but, like many, she didn’t know how to translate that love into a potential career. Instead, she pursued a degree in international relations to satisfy her passion for politics and travel. She spent one semester in Ghana and another in South Africa.

After graduation she worked in a San Diego law firm and was headed for law school, but a career in film was never far from her mind. “I had an idea the whole time that I wanted to do this, but I was scared to go after it,” she said. “I didn't think it was possible.”

Abandoning the idea of becoming a lawyer, she accepted an invitation from friends to go to South Korea to figure things out. Without any formal training, she made her first short film there.

“At the end of the day it wasn’t something that I would ever show anyone,” Stinnette recalled, “but at the same time, the process just felt so right. I loved being on set. I felt that I was doing the right thing.”

She looked at film schools for two years, and, wanting to return to Los Angeles, applied to TFT, enrolling in fall 2011.

She credits professors Smith, Rory Kelly and Gyula Gazdag with helping her grow as a filmmaker.

“Rory was instrumental in my transition from first year to the second,” Stinnette said. “After the first year, I still didn't quite understand the mechanics of telling a story for the screen and wasn't quite confident in my abilities. After taking Rory's class, I felt much more confident to shape a scene and capture all the beats necessary to tell a story.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have Becky as a mentor,” Stinnette continued. “Not only is she phenomenal at her work, but she also goes above and beyond to support students. Sometimes as a filmmaker, I hit a low point when I'm not sure what to do. I often turn to Becky during these times, and she has a really intuitive way of helping students figure out how to solve problems. She has been incredibly consistent with her support and positive encouragement of my work ... and Gyula is a real gem. He’s a great guide in helping students understand how to bring the story out of them and shape it into what it’s supposed to be.”

This story has been adapted from one now posted on the TFT website.