STOP10: 'Nervous Translation' by Shireen Seno

Nervous Translation, which had its world premiere at the 13th Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival , is a meeting of dreams, childlike perceptions of the world and an intermittent connection with the real world. Created by Shireen Seno, an architect by training and a lover of experimental cinema at heart, the film offers a thoughtful palette of visuals and textures that echo the world eight-year-old Yael, the main character, creates in her imaginative mind.

Yael lives with her mother who is perennially exhausted from work and is rather emotionally detached. So Yael likes to listen endlessly to the cassette tapes recorded by her father, whom we never seen, but according to the narrative, is working in Saudi Arabia. To fill her voids, for which she has many, she relishes in creating little make-believe worlds within the house, playing with household items and finding meaning for herself through them. What's interesting is that Shireen's visual expression of Yael's world, for instance in the recreation of miniature sets like a kitchen and later on, a cluster of housing in a flood, adds another layer of observation into the film. It is like looking through a snow globe at someone who is also looking at a miniature world from the palm of her hands. This film, in many ways, tries to marry fantastical set-ups with more sobering real-life truths. We guess that's how the term magic-realism came about. One of the 'real-life truths' the film tried to reference is Philippines’ Martial Law in the 1980s. In a few instances, Yael rebels in certain ways, only to be penalised later by her mother, seemingly a allegorical reference to Martial Law. Dwarfed by these real-world issues, Yael never lets them douse her sparks of imagination and her blissful ignorance that underlies most of the film. With a mix of deliberately-choppy editing and surrealist sound design, Nervous Translation take you off the logic train for a different ride. For people with reservations about experimental cinema, this film could be challenging. But Shireen has this to say. Here is SINdie's interview with Shireen.

You are a big proponent of experimental cinema. To people who are not warmed up to experimental cinema, how would you sell it to them?

I think experimental cinema is amazing because there are no limits ot it. Sometimes I feel like the term experimental cinema is used as a way to put a label on things that don't fit. They are like misfits. Outsiders. Which is a good thing. And it is a good thing that there is a medium where you don't have these narrative restrictions. You can find your own form.

How was this film funded? Given its esoteric treatment, was it challenging to get funding?
In its early stages, the film received script and project development funding from the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam and production funding from The Global Film Initiative, while the final productions funds came from Cinema One Originals. Yes, it took several attempts/years applying to local film festival funding to finally bring home the bacon after the initial interest died down.

Why is the film called Nervous Translation?

The title actually came from a dream. I had a dream in which I had to go my relative’s place to find a pen for the film. I really like the phrase because ‘nervous’ usually comes with ‘nervous breakdown’. So I was quite intrigued by the phrase and I wanted to explore it. I feel the word translation is interesting because there is lot of subjectivity to it. So that’s when I felt I needed to collect more dreams. I had trouble writing and I knew I had to collect more dreams and just put them in there and not have to make sense of it so much, and to have that kind of absurdity perhaps, and let them breathe on their own.

What inspired you to use miniatures in the film?
I actually studied architecture, so I have that experience with scale and I feel it is like a recurring motif in my works. I like to play with the concept of scale. My first film Big Boy was about a boy and his parents who are obsessed with him being tall. So there is play with scale. And the first one was about dealing with the colonial mentality. And here in Nervous Translation, I am using scale as a way of emotionally and psychologically entering a child's point of view.

The play with scale seems to bring home the point that the world is never the right size for the girl and vice versa. What drew you to an expressionist or magic-realist mode of telling the story?

I think I am a bit of deadpan kind of a person maybe? I like this kind of dead pan humour that is absurdist in a way. I grew up reading a lot of Kafka. So there is a lot of absurdity in it. The waking up or falling asleep....playing with the scale of things. Who built the miniature sets for the film? Any interesting incidents to share? Especially the ones involving real cooking?

The miniature stove is made entirely out of metal, so it's non-flammable and can really cook food with a tealight candle! It's made by a small German company that handcrafts a line of brilliant miniature stoves designed to be used with incense cones that they also make from entirely of natural materials according to an old family recipe. The miniature sets for the final scene of the film were designed by Carl Papa, a filmmaker known for his animated films which use different kinds of techniques, such as rotoscoping and handmade elements. For Nervous Translation, Carl led a team of young artists including Mikki Luistro and Bee Lachenal to build the handmade sets based on our live action set.

You and John edited this movie. A lot of filmmakers have trouble editing their own movies for various reasons. Do you find it challenging to edit your own film?

I am not such a good editor. So that’s why I asked John to work on it together with me. I did sort of a rough edit and he helped fine-tune it. He’s got a really good sense of rhythm. He started off as an editor, so he’s got that base. For me, I actually started off taking photos. I am more of a visual person and I feel that so much of the footage was so composed in a way that I was so happy we had all these shots taken in between moments when we were just rolling the camera. It helped us get away from this sense of structure. It was through the editing and the sound design that allowed us to break free of the structure. 
How did having a baby change your treatment of the story or film?
Aki was born a couple months after the film, but being pregnant with her while shooting was definitely a challenge to stay focused. Brain drain, as they say, since all the good stuff in your body goes to the baby, and not just while pregnant; it also continues if you breastfeed.

Do you direct child actors differently from adult actors? Especially now that you have your own child? (Shireen’s child cried on cue when this question was asked.)

She can speak for me haha. About directing children, I am terrible at directing actually. I am really nervous so I actually prefer working with non-actors. I feel like I am at the same level as them. I feel intimidated working with professional actors. But for this, we had a timeframe to complete. That’s why we considered working with a casting director. So we came across this girl called Jana, who is actually a child star. I didn’t really know her at all because I don’t really watch TV now. She is known for her work on TV comedies. She has been a star since she was six and she has her own comedic timing, and her own way of acting. But we said no, just try to relax. So a lot of the footage in the film was just the camera rolling when she was just waiting, being a kid, being herself. I was really happy to have that footage of un-staged stuff and it was mixed together with the scripted stuff. There was really so much time waiting that she had the chance to be herself and when children are left to be themselves, that’s when the magic happens.

There are close to 6 film festivals in the Philippines currently. Do you think the scene is seeing some kind of a resurgence of a golden age?
There is definitely no shortage of films being produced, and it's great that these film festivals are open to anyone to submit their scripts. The catch, however, to most of these festival funds is that they own the majority of the rights to the film, so it's really a trade-off. A new fund offered by the Bangkok-based Purin Pictures is changing the game, in offering grants with no catch to Southeast Asian films, with one slot per grant session dedicated to female filmmakers from the region.

The film was screened under the Asian Perspective section of the 13th Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival held in Yogyakarta.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

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