‘I think we grow up brainwashed to think that there are products to solve our problems’ — Shireen Seno

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Shireen Seno's award-winning film “Nervous Translation” continues to make rounds in film festivals and museums around the world since it premiered in 2017. Next stop: the Tate Modern. Photo courtesy of SHIREEN SENO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Shireen Seno’s film, “Nervous Translation,” has been hailed as one of the best Filipino films of 2017 and has consistently been featured in film festivals around the world — just within a year since it premiered at Cinema One Originals Film Festival. Along the way, it has also picked up a couple of awards, including the Asian Talent Award for Best Script Writer at the 21st Shanghai International Film Festival.

The film is about a shy eight year old (played by Jana Agoncillo) who finds a pen that can translate her thoughts and feelings. It had its international premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival earlier this year. It also has made its way into the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival where The New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody called it “the best recent evocations of a child’s life and thought.” It played at the Museum of Modern Art during the film festival, which is responsible for introducing then-emerging talents such as Christopher Nolan and Pedro Almodóvar into a bigger audience.

“Nervous Translation” is many things to its filmmaker but it is also a personal one. Aside from basing most of the lead character’s experiences from her own childhood, Seno describes her film and her six-month old baby as twins, having shared the same journey.

“We shot the film when I was three to four months pregnant and premiered it internationally in Rotterdam about a month before I gave birth,” Seno says. “It has now screened at 14 festivals, and 16 more have been confirmed. I have only been able to attend the ones in Asia because of baby Aki — her longest flight so far has been four and a half hours when she was only three months old!  [...] It is an immense joy to be a parent as well as a filmmaker. Seeing Aki grow is a daily reminder to savor this period in our lives because it goes by fast!”

Nervous Translation Jana Agoncillo plays the shy eight-year-old lead in “Nervous Translation.” Photo courtesy of SHIREEN SENO

“Nervous Translation” though has had a longer gestation period, from its beginnings in Seno’s stay at the Venice Biennale College Cinema in 2013 to its premiere in 2017. This is her second full-length film since “Big Boy,” an experimental narrative about a boy in 1950’s Mindoro “who is pulled from both ends every day in order to stretch him.”

“A big challenge was finding support after the initial momentum had died down,” says Seno of giving birth to her second film. “And after finally securing the bulk of our budget, having to make the film in six months. Lastly, shooting while three to four months pregnant — it was definitely a struggle to stay focused. The journey has its share of delays, but I like to think everything happens in its own time. In the meantime, I was able to do some curating and film programming of my own, allowing me to explore and learn from the creative processes of others.”

“Nervous Translation” will be screened next at the Tate Modern where it will have its U.K. premiere.

In this interview, Seno discusses growing up in two worlds, the relation of consumerism and the post-martial law years, and how her parental instincts became part of “Nervous Translation.” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

I noticed that in write-ups, especially for the film festivals, there's always a mention of you as “Japanese-Filipino,” not just being Asian. Did this duality have a big effect on your film or the way your film has been viewed elsewhere?

I am actually full Filipino and happened to grow up in Japan. I think so, yes — there is a kind of duality that comes out in my work, but it's not that simple either. I was born to Filipino parents in Japan in the early 1980s. My mother was a teacher at an international school, and my classmates came from 56 different countries. It was liberal and empowering — with my teachers and classmates from all over the world instilling in us the idea that the world was ours, with a definitive push towards America and the western world — but all the more confusing. That's why I gravitate towards films about the pressures of growing-up — not really understanding the forces at work around us, only feeling the push and pull of these forces.

After moving to Manila in 2009, I began to make up for lost time spent outside these islands. I heard from John [Torres, the film’s producer] and other friends of ours about how families here in the ‘80s with loved ones abroad would send cassette tapes back and forth to keep in touch. I realized how fortunate I had been to have grown up with my family in one place, although the drawback to that was growing up without a strong sense of home or roots. So you could say “Nervous Translation” is a mix of my own memories of displacement and those of fellow children in the Philippines at the same time.

I was born three days before Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. That means I was three years old when the People Power Revolution happened after 21 years of dictatorship and martial law, and Cory Aquino became president of the new democracy. In Tokyo, we didn't really talk about politics or what was going on in the Philippines at the time. My mother worked hard at the international school, and even taught private lessons at home after school and on weekends to save more money. She made my sisters and I do math drills like Mad Minute at home so that we would ace them in school. My parents would also test me on my spelling over dinner, asking me to spell out words like 'chrysanthemum'.

You also mentioned before that “Nervous Translation” was kind of a transition for you as a director, like in terms of communicating and being on set. How did you go through that?

“Nervous Translation” is mainly based on my own experiences, although unlike Yael, I was not an only child. I had two older sisters who were a big influence on me. But I have always been a shy person, and perhaps I am still hiding behind the camera more than I should be. I yearn to be less of a perfectionist, to embrace the uncertain, and continue to learn by making mistakes.

It is through filmmaking that I hope to learn to connect more with others, instead of retreating inwardly. But I find it really difficult to 'direct' people and usually prefer to be a distance from them. In “Big Boy,” we worked almost entirely with non-actors, kids without any acting experience, who were very much rooted in the towns where we were shooting.

For “Nervous Translation,” I wanted to shake things up a bit and try something new. I opened up to the idea of casting a child actor, especially with our time constraint — we had about six months to make the film. Luckily, we ended up with Jana Agoncillo, who became known for her starring role on a drama-comedy T.V. series called “Ningning” in 2015. When we met Jana, her charisma was undeniable, but it was clear that she had become accustomed to a certain kind of acting for television — the way children are made to appear cute in their dialogue and sing-song way of talking. We had a gut feeling we could get her to tone that down though, if we could get her to relax. Jana was such a pleasure to work with. She was the funniest person on set in between takes, but when it came time to shoot, she put her game face on.

The script itself is very minimal, with actions rather than words. I didn’t want Jana to overact, so we chose not to explain the psychology behind Yael’s actions, only for her to do them and in a fairly deadpan way.

Nervous Translation Shireen Seno on the set of “Nervous Translation” with producer John Torres. Photo courtesy of SHIREEN SENO

There's something very specific about Japanese consumer technology and the late 1980s. I'm guessing this is the “magic” of Yael's childhood. How did that relate to how you wanted to tackle diaspora in the film?

I used to clean the soles of my shoes when I was a child. It was a kind of a therapeutic ritual for a shy kid obsessed with order. Opening the film with Yael arriving home and cleaning the soles of her shoes brings us straight into Yael’s world and acts as a conduit to the scenes where she cooks in miniature without having to explain or establish things. I think shoes are indeed important — they are like material witnesses to the day-to-day of our lives, and I wanted to connect that to the infamous collection of shoes Imelda Marcos had to leave behind during the People Power Revolution, testifying to the Marcos’ insatiable greed.

I was thinking of diaspora through products — the lives of goods and objects as much as people. I believe that the middle class has the potential to change our society but our colonial mindset and classist tendencies run deep. After People Power, there was so much potential. It was an amazing outburst. We overthrew a dictatorship. But then it kind of just turned into this shallow, consumerist society [and] that we're still where we are today, in a sense, because we really didn't get past the surfaces of things.

I had a dream one night that I was told to go to my relatives and find the pen for nervous translation. When I woke up, I thought, how perfect that would be — to have a pen for nervous translation, as opposed to having a nervous breakdown! I think we grow up brainwashed by modern society to think that there are products to solve our problems, when in fact our problems lie in a disjunct between our the world around us and the world within.

I believe that the middle class has the potential to change our society but our colonial mindset and classist tendencies run deep.

In the film, I love that the absence surrounding Yael is filled by a recording of her father's voice. And it becomes part of her routine. Can you tell us more about that tape?

I grew up without many words but a strange mix of sounds. My father was a man who spoke more through his actions. But thank goodness for his mystery and humor, and for showing me how to make something out of nothing. He would go biking around our middle-class Tokyo neighborhood and come home with stuff he found left on the street — twin-cassette boomboxes, electronic parts, furniture, you name it — and would find a way to make them work or find another use for them. And if I didn’t know how to do something and asked him for help, he would look at me blankly and say, “Experiment!”

When I was three years old, my father would pick me up from my half-day at kindergarten and take me with him to work doing admin and office help for a small English school. I remember falling asleep on a tatami (Japanese straw mat) floor to the sound of the photocopy machine. When he had finished his work for the day, he would take me with him by train to Akihabara, the electronics district of Tokyo, a visual and aural feast for the senses for anyone, let anyone a three year old. Back then in the ‘80s, there were a lot of outdoor live demonstrations for new products, not just electronics, but everything from cooking knives to barking toy dogs. Before you even arrived at the spot, you would hear a man's voice, projected on a loudspeaker, essentially whipping up stories for these products, to make you come closer and watch. Sometimes, my father would leave me there on the street, engrossed in these strange audiovisual performances, without even telling me. I didn't worry too much though — somehow I knew he would come back for me.

I knew very early on that the sound needed to be very minimal — just the humdrum patterns of the mundane everyday, a mix of human and mechanical voices and sounds, various gradations of breath, wind, whispering, whistling, the voices of objects.

Are there movies, or pop cultural products that served as references or inspiration for “Nervous Translation”?

“The Spirit of the Beehive” by Victor Erice and “The Small Town” by Nuri Bilge Ceylan were two films that had a profound impact on me while making “Nervous Translation,” for their depictions of childhood as both magical and tragic.

In terms of music, I knew the ‘80s was dominated by cheesy ballads and disco, with the alternative being our very own versions of New Wave and punk. I came across a blog documenting our underground scene and was intrigued by a compilation album released only on cassette tape called “Subterranean Romance: The Rise of the Martial Law Babies.” There was one track that I really felt fit the mood of the film — a track called “XC” by Integrated Circuit, which played the part of the band The Futures in the film. Luckily, I was able track down Nitto Palacios, the man behind this track and the entire album, which he produced in a lovingly lo-fi way, similar to our own approach to filmmaking.

Nervous Translation.png Yael connects through her OFW father through a cassette tape he recorded. Photo courtesy of SHIREEN SENO

I've mentioned this to an author I interviewed recently, that when adults look back at childhood, there's kind of some gloss to it but we rarely remember the pains and the loneliness of childhood, which is what was depicted in “Nervous Translation,” and in “Big Boy” as well. Was this “perception through the child's eyes” something that you wanted to put in your films?

These films are attempts at making sense of things but also really just accepting the mysteries and misunderstandings that come with growing up. We all have our hang-ups over the way we were raised. As I get older, and I guess with each film, I feel myself becoming more understanding of my parents at the same time, I feel myself becoming more and more like them. There is a scene in the film where Yael is dragging her mother's body on a bridge. We didn't quite shoot it the way I wanted it exactly, because the gap under the concrete railing of the bridge turned out to be so big that Jana could have fallen through. My parental instincts definitely got the better of me, and for good reason.