@SGIFF2015 Production talk with Sanif Olek for Voluptas

Brief synopsis:

After her failed marriage, Ariati descends into a downward spiral. Her waning spirits however is lifted, when she meets Aaron, who seemingly appears to be the better version of her previous significant other. She also meets Suhaillah, a free spirit who echoes her search for spirituality. Will these new connections breathe new life into her, and lead her to her own closure?

After the release of Sanif Olek's Voluptas, Sindie caught up with the eminent director to find out more:

Here are some interview questions which we would like to seek your response on:

1. Why did you choose to title your film "Voluptas"?

The final titles in all of my films were usually conceptualized towards the end of the final script or while I was assembling the film in the editing room. For Voluptas, it was suggested by my co-writer, Hady A. Hamid. Voluptas is the name of a diety in Roman mythology who has similar characteristics to another famous diety, Aphrodite. The main protagonist in the film, played by Ariati Tyeb Papar, possesses similar character arc to Voluptas the diety. I felt it’s interesting and appropriate that Voluptas becomes the title to my second feature.

2. Voluptas strikes me as a film about inner turmoil and spiritual and personal revelations. 
Being such an introspective film, where did you find inspiration to do this film, and was it a personal film for you?

I have always been interested in the study of the human condition and the raw emotions that drive someone to certain decisions. On top of that, one’s spiritual bearing also reveals the direction he will take to deal with his personal turmoil. As I get older and meet more people, I realize that one need not be religious or subscribing to a particular popular religion to be spiritual. An Atheist doesn’t believe in any gods yet can be spiritual. All ascribed religion has one thing in common – an acknowledgement to a central guiding faith to become good in the eyes of humanity. Some people use religion as a moral compass yet is misguided spiritually. Religion makes one contented at the same time drives others into Nazis of morality.

3, I see that the visual style of Voluptas is very minimalist, and very intimate. How did this fit in with the thematic thrust of the work?

In the beginning while I was conceptualizing Voluptas, I already have in mind that I want to make a minimalist film. I tried this sort of filmmaking process while making my 2nd short film, À La Folie (2008). I think it challenges me to go back to Basic Filmmaking 101, i.e., stripping bare the process to focus on the visual representation and performances of actors. The dialogue takes a back seat. Importantly, by utilizing these techniques, I want the audience to be more engaged in the storytelling. I recall during the first term of year one in film school, we were given a filmmaking exercise where we need to tell a story in 3 minutes utilizing just visuals. Coming from almost twenty years of mainstream, commercial television background, I would like to challenge myself by returning to the basic form of the visual storytelling process.

4. For this kind of story and cinematographic style, much of the focus must be on the actors. How did you bring out strong performances from your cast for this film? How did you unlock their emotions?

Many actors whom I’ve collaborated may remember how on set I will hate it for them to “act”. As a result, I like to work with actors whom I’ve known personally for some time. Their personality will somehow be trajected onto the screen. I look for naturalism in the performances. However this does not mean that I only work with one group of actors or only cast certain actors in leading roles. The casting also depends on the availability of the cast. I have also picked certain actors solely because I find it interesting to cast them against stereotype. Thus, in many of my films, much of what an outsider may consider as “strong” or naturalistic performances, the inside joke among the peers who may know the cast personally is that these actors are not really “acting”.

5. How different is the experience of working on Voluptas from working on Sayang Disayang?

Sayang Disayang and Voluptas are two different films, both stylistically and genre.

Sayang Disayang has a rather formalistic/traditional, linear approach in the filmmaking and narrative structure. There is a script. I worked with a film crew of up to 20 people daily for a period of about a month. The camera and lighting adopt a stylized mis-en-scene in the respective scenes. The genesis for Sayang Disayang was my desire to make a film that embodies the Nusantara, i.e. the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia. It celebrates the Nusantara "rumpun" or common heritage - elements that folks from this region can find commonality with, such as food, songs and the diverse cultural pathos.

Voluptas was filmed in 4 days. The actors did not have a script to refer to other than an idea of their respective character’s emotional journey and overall narrative arc. All of the performances and minimal dialogue were improvisations. This process is more challenging in a sense that my personal relationships with the actors are put to the test. It was a very intimate filming process because the camera is reacting to the actors and not otherwise. Nevertheless, I am very pleased that the cast in Voluptas, despite the “non-conventional” filmmaking process, performed beyond my expectations.

6. How have audiences responded to Voluptas? Which part of the film did they connect to?

I think many of the audience who attended the SGIFF 2015 world premiere screening of Voluptas were attracted primarily to the casting of A-listers, Ariati Tyeb Papar, Aaron Aziz and Suhaillah Salam. These three actors are very popular with audiences who are familiar with their commercial film blockbusters and mainstream television dramas. Nevertheless, the cast and I are pleased that Voluptas manages to showcase a different type of performances. From the audience feedback, I think they enjoy watching their favourite A-listers in roles against typecast.

7. What inspired you to embark on this film?

Some of films and filmmakers that inspired me to do Voluptas are incredible filmmakers such as the Dardenne brothers from Belgium who made the films, “L’Enfant” and recently “Two days, One Night”. The latter film incidentally was Belgium’s submission for the Oscars Best Foreign Language Film the same year that Sayang Disayang was submitted as Singapore’s entry to the Oscars in the same category. Voluptas is also inspired by Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and the poetic “The Tree of Life”.

8. Was it challenging to make this film?

Voluptas is challenging for both cast and myself. Being largely improvisational, the cast had to approach the process from a different perspective that the conventional process that they are familiar with in mainstream work. As far as I am concerned, the four days of filming was one of the most mentally exhausting process for me as I have to keep myself focus on the visual direction, the actors’ performances and on top of that, having to keep a clear mind on the storytelling.

Great job to the director and crew!

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