An Interview with Ler Jiyuan on VIOS (2019)

VIOS is a scrapbook film. It’s an expression of loss and pain and a cathartic journey showing wholeheartedly what it’s like to lose a pet. The 20-minute film consists of many different types of video formats all sliced together to form one heartbreaking story: the passing of a beloved dog. Throughout the entirety of VIOS, the story of cancer and loss begins to unravel before us and even as passive viewers, we feel the emotion intensely.

What first catches the eye in the opening shot is the angles used. We are viewing the world from down low, constantly looking up from the ground. Clearly, the audience is asked to be drawn into the dog’s world, even before knowing exactly what the story is about. 

VIOS is scattered with both on-the-whim and professional scenes, sometimes shot portrait-mode on a camera phone, sometimes images spliced together slowly to allow the passing of time to decrease, and sometimes the camera slowly focuses and unfocuses, like the moving eyes of a person deep in thought.

The speakers in the film are not characters: they’re real people. Wendy and Ler, as they are referred to in the end credits, made this film from their personal experience. Tracking their personal experience over the last few months of Vios’ life is a tremendous journey. During the voiceovers, their voices linger and crack, their tones shift, and their word gain more weight as the film progresses. VIOS is personal ode to loss and memory and an invitation into the journey Wendy and Ler faced four years ago.

There’s a shot near the end of the film, intimate and up close, where we see a nearly motionless Vios shed a tear in Wendy’s arms. The emotion which jumps out through the screen almost seems human. You can’t help yourself and feel as if Vios knows she is near the end of her life, trying to take it all in one last time. It’s almost as if the feeling of loss transcends human emotion and is felt by all living beings able to mourn. But is it a tear of full life experience or a journey cut short?

VIOS, in every sense, is both a reflection on death and a celebration of life. It brings together memories like a collage, documenting experiences as if they were written into a diary and then transformed into a short film. 

SINdie conducted an email interview with Ler Jiyuan on his experience making VIOS.

SINdie: How does making a film about a personal experience affect the way you process it?

Ler Jiyuan: 4 years ago, when Vios was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, we started documenting her entire cancer journey. What I and Wendy initially wanted to do was a video to help bring awareness to Canine Cancer in Singapore. After Vios died, however, we abandoned the entire project. I guess both of us were simply too traumatized to do anything.

3 years later (2018), we finally found the courage to go through the footage again. We were in a better place and was able to assess the footage much better. We were shocked by how much we had shot. Hours and hours of our lives together with Vios, captured on tape (oh well, SD card to be accurate). The footage was amazing - intimate, emotional, and at times even brutal. After some discussion, we decided that we would make a short documentary about Vios instead, because that would honour her memory best.

VIOS was my first documentary in more than 10 years. It was also Wendy's first film - she's usually in front of the lens as an actress. We relied heavily on the help of our dear friend Andy, who was the editor of the film. He brought a much needed balanced perspective which we were lacking. We initially wanted to do a more "message-driven" kind of film. Andy was the one who advised us to keep the film personal, let the images speak for themselves. 

Looking at the end result, it did bring some kind of closure to us. Through the process, we also understood our choices better back then, and most of all, we were able to relive our times with Vios again.

How does an experience change when you choose to film it?

Now, as I looked back, I realized that shooting Vios' cancer journey was a kind of coping mechanism for me. I wasn't like Wendy (my wife), who was able to express herself emotionally. I felt a lot of frustration during that time which I had bottled up. I needed an outlet to make sense of Vios' suffering. Hiding behind the lens was my way - telling myself that we would immortalize the memory of her on film. 

How does crowdsourcing through Kickstarter affect the filmmaking process?

The film gets made the same way. Our backers don't affect our creative decisions. 

Being on Kickstarter was difficult for me and Wendy because we both had to learn how to use Social Media for promotional purposes. We were both noobs when it came to that, which was ironic, considering the fact that we are both in the film line. In the end, I had to seek the help of my younger friends - Yen and Joyce, to help us navigate this new strange world. I also hired an ex-student of mine, Matarsha, who handled the creation of the Social Media collaterals for the film. We managed to pull through a successful campaign with the help of these capable millennials, who had taught us so much.

What do you hope audiences gain from VIOS and your story?

With this film, we are inviting audiences into our personal lives, showing them a very vulnerable side of us. Initially, we were very afraid of what people would think. But along the way, we decided - fuck it - we were just going to do this film as truthfully as possible, in the exact way we wanted. What the audience will "gain" from it, I don't know. I just hope our story can touch them. 

VIOS will be screening on the 22nd of April at Golden Village Suntec Hall 8 as part of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival.

Written by Valerie Tan
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