Interview: Cristián Jiménez
Alongside filmmakers like Pablo Larraín, Sebastián Silva, Alicia Scherson, and Andrés Wood, Cristián Jiménez belongs to a generation that, almost two decades after Pinochet, has revitalized and diversified Chilean cinema. Jiménez’s second feature, Bonsai (11), screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, tells a wry love story about lies, literature, and small trees. His latest, Voice Over, explores the inner relationships of a four-generation family, and shows us the weight of what is left unsaid. Ingrid Isensee plays Sofia, a single mother of two who is facing the unexpected divorce of her parents. Once the divorce is final, Sofia and her sister Anna (Maria Siebald) uncover secrets in the past of their father, Manuel (Cristian Campos). Layering stories of sickness, coming-of-age, aging, and new opportunities—and shooting the film in his birthplace of Valdivia with longtime DP Inti Briones—Jiménez revitalizes the family drama with a true-to-life, shrewd portrait of a contemporary middle-class family in provincial Chile today.
Voice Over has its U.S. premiere tonight in Film Comment Selects at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in addition to screening in the Miami International Film Festival. FILM COMMENT spoke with Jiménez, a writer turned filmmaker, last week.
This seems like a very personal film.
Yes, it’s a world that I know very well. I don’t know what to call it—it’s the small provincial bourgeoisie where there are certain hints of a connection to a global world or cosmopolitanism. And the neighborhood where we shot is called Isla Teja: it’s literally an island. It’s not as if Bonsai wasn’t a personal film, but that was personal in a different way.
With Bonsai you were working off Alejandro Zambra’s book, but this is an original script. Tell me about your process with your co-writer Daniel Castro.
I had some scenes, some characters, and some elements that I wanted to work with, and we started watching films and talking about them. We were writing in turns. That’s what I do when I co-write—we don’t sit down and write together. When I co-wrote with Alicia Scherson in Optical Illusions , I did the same thing, which was talk a lot. Daniel would send me what he had done, I wrote on that, and we kept doing that. It’s like when you are painting—you do one stroke of paint. At the end, sometimes you don’t even know who wrote what.
I also did a lot of interviews for this film. I did that with Daniel but also with a guy called Pablo Perazzo who is an anthropologist and interviewed families with sisters and families where the parents divorced after a long marriage. Some of the people I also interviewed myself. It was interesting to see certain patterns, and what happened when the reactions were different. I have a sociology background, so when you’re doing research for the sake of thoroughly answering a question, you’re looking for something you can generalize to some degree. When you are researching from a film point of view, at some point maybe you’re thinking of generalizing but your aim is to collect something that is unique and at the same time can reflect something bigger. So it’s almost as if you are looking for the little things, not necessarily big things.
There is also a bit of you in the film. Are you reflected in Sofia or Ana? Or both?
A bit of both but I think the character that I’m more directly reflecting my own experiences in is Román, the child. For example, the scene with the nail was one experience I had with my sister but it was the other way around—it was my younger sister. When we were young, she admired me very much so she would do anything that I did. Once, I stepped on a nail, and when I told her that it did not hurt, she did it herself. Also my sister is a vegetarian and her children really wanted to eat meat when they were little. So there is plenty of stuff in the film that reflects some experiences on a direct or not-so-direct level.
I’ve tried to keep it far away from certain family films where conflict that is extremely complex ends up having a resolution that works on a dramatic level but doesn’t do justice to what happens in real life. For example, if you have abuse in a family, it’s something that is not going to be worked out during one weekend. It’s going to take years and years. If it takes years for things to be spoken about, it’s going to take years and years for everyone to find a place within a new narrative, and that is something I was really conscious about. And I wanted and I understood that in a way, the search for truth that you can have within a family always has a lot of gaps and is finally very obscure. No matter how much you try, you’re never going to find a real solution. It’s not something that can just be unveiled, discussed, and that’s it. It’s something that doesn’t end. There is no real solution to be found in conventional screenplays that work around these subjects.
In Bonsai, you explored literature, love, and lying. Here, you detour towards family dynamics but the lying remains, not in a malevolent way though. Everybody seems to be lying to themselves or at least keeping the truth from others. Not everything is being said.
Maybe . . . If you look back at my shorts, there is always something about what is false and what is true as a question that is always there. But I think it’s not just a problem of hiding things and putting certain things forward. It’s also about the difficulty in dealing with certain things when we try to put them forward and language is always limited. It’s not just a problem of lying or hiding. There’s something that starts happening, something that is organic, something that is finally physical that ends up in the bodies of the people who are sharing a certain situation and that I find very intriguing.
Do technologies in the story such as cellphones and social media come into play in regard to that intricacy of communication?
I was more inclined toward thinking about certain concrete dimensions that words have within a family. For example, when I was researching this film, I read a paper about people who had been in concentration camps, and the researchers found out that the sons and daughters of people who had experienced concentration camps were three times more likely to have PTSD. When they did the second round of research, they found out that it was linked to the fact that it was not spoken about. You’d think you could transmit the stress if you talk about something, but it’s the other way around. When you think about psychoanalysis and the idea of transference, that is something that happens beyond a verbal level. New technologies are just part of the landscape—that’s how we do things now. We can even say that language is a technology. The omnipresence of new technologies is a contemporary setting—it changes the rules about how things work. Some people can reject it and some people can embrace it. I like the idea of the grandmother having this clever approach toward technology, because I’ve seen this: people who just understand if they want to be in touch with their grandchildren, technology is a clever move. Get yourself a Facebook account or Messenger and that’s a way you’re going to be in touch with them.
The way the film is edited, sometimes we can hear the conversations in one scene going on while we see the images of a different scene, which creates a voiceover-like effect. Can you talk about the significance of that and of voiceover in your films?
I have always used less voiceover than what I originally wanted to use. I am always super-attracted to voiceover—I find it difficult to use and sometimes it’s a bit shocking. In this case, the film is really about dialogue. It’s about what is being said and what is missing from what is being said. Some people have told me that they believed the film needed to be more explicit in showing certain things. To me, it’s really like you have one first scene where you look at things in a very specific way and from then on, it’s about dialogue. I think the idea of voiceover normally implies that a narrator that is not participating. It implies a certain distance. There’s the action and there’s the voiceover. In theory, you cannot be the protagonist and be the one doing the voiceover. But this is a slight twist on that because the two sisters who are the main characters are the ones with this dialogue and in a way the dialogue is the main action.
Especially since Bonsai, I started looking at dialogue differently from the way it’s usually thought about. Typically there’s this tendency with dialogue to try to get across as much action as possible. I started looking at dialogue in a more concrete way, almost as if the words could be looked at as matter. I think that’s also related to this issue of not saying something. It’s not just deceiving. It’s matter that is not brought into the world and that creates these sort of frictions and tensions that we don’t necessarily get to understand. There’s something material about dialogue that I tried to explore here—not just dialogue as a transmission of information.
Would you consider yourself a writer first?
I started as a writer, so I was a writer first. When I was younger, I was not really a film buff. I started writing and when I was 20, I really wanted to be a writer. I also got interested in film when I was in my early twenties so I was not that young. But I think now I’ve reached a point where, when I’m working on my own films, it’s hard to separate the writing from the directing and from the creation of a concept that is both image and sound. Normally, I’m writing but I’m making notes about how I want this scene to look. I also work as a writer for other people, which is a completely different experience from writing your own stuff. Normally, that means working to help someone who has an idea and an intention, to make that idea and that intention into a map to make a film. You’re really being like the shrink of the other person.
Your films are very dramatic, sometimes even tragic, but humor keeps breaking through in a very nice way.
Yeah, it’s something that I cannot really avoid. I tend to push things towards certain gags. I avoid the straightforward gag but often when I’m shooting television and we’re doing stuff that is very dramatic, sometimes I try to push little jokes, but often we just have to take it out. When I started writing this film, I thought it was going to be my first dramatic film, but when we began writing it scene by scene and then the dialogue, the jokes were slipping in by themselves. It’s hard for me to avoid putting little touches of lightness. I remember once when I lived in the U.K., we were discussing with someone the concept of gallows humor and someone said that gallows humor shows that even death is not so important. At the end of the day, I think when you are working on dramatic material and you joke about it a little bit, it puts a certain touch of hope in what you’re saying. It also calls things into question. Maybe you don’t take yourself so seriously and at the same time if you think in terms of depth, when something is only serious and dramatic, even though it might have a reputation of being profound, it may lack a layer that is there if you look at things more profoundly. It’s also a matter of taste. One day I would love to make a straightforward comedy.
In past interviews, you’ve mentioned Buster Keaton and Luis Buñuel as influences—
—and Preston Sturges.
Preston Sturges, right. Which is a kind of humor, especially in Keaton and Buñuel, that comes from how real it is and how absurd it is at the same time.
Exactly! I mean if you look at the news in Chile right now, for example, there’s a lot of debate about a very Chilean way of political corruption because we have the reputation of being the least corrupt country in Latin America. But now there are all these new things coming out because the world has become more transparent. If you put all the facts together, it may not be comic, but it is at least absurd. For example, I like Haneke’s films, and I’m always watching and thinking that this film might be a masterpiece but it would be a masterpiece for sure if it had humor. There are some things that are never so serious. There’s always a crack and that is so human. The humor is there because reality is always a bit absurd and people just do silly things. Manuel’s innocence and the fact that he may be a nice guy may mean he has not examined himself so deeply with regard to the issues he’s got with women. He’s not a slimy character, which would be the obvious approach. Things are more complicated than that. He’s a nice father and a nice guy. That makes it harder, and at the same time there is a bit of humor that comes from a character like that.
Was there an emphasis on the fact that the characters are separated by generation?
Yeah, the fact that there are four generations here and each generation has a different kind of agenda and a different kind of code. The title in Spanish is Voz en Off and the idea of “Off” means that something is left out; it has many interpretations. The world has changed so quickly that it’s hard to find something that we all have in common, something that can be shared. There are so many misunderstandings and there are so many ways of looking at things because the experience of each generation is different.
You took extra care in finding the chemistry between the actors, because they all had to work as a family. How did you cast them?
We shot the film in Valdivia so they were all living in the same hotel for a couple of weeks and they started acting like a family even when we were off set. When I started casting the two sisters, I had Ingrid Isensee in mind because I had worked with her before. María José Siebald is a very special actress. She does a lot of other things: she’s a dancer, she does visual arts projects, and she is a big character and has this big presence. I thought that the two together would really make these sisters not match and at the same time could be complementary and still have this competitiveness that sisters usually have. So I was really sure about this duo at the center of the film.
The parents were not so simple, especially because I wanted them to be young and to be old but at the same time to make you feel that they started this family when they were awfully young. It puts things into perspective when you look at it from the point of view from our generation. Cristian Campos, who plays Manuel, is a well-established television actor. He’s also done a lot of theater but very, very little film, so in a way that was a bit of a more unusual casting decision, whereas Paulina [García, who plays the mother] has done a lot of film. She’s a bit of a star, especially after her role in Gloria, so they were a really nice combination. I really liked how the two worked together and were able to imply so many things that were beyond the dialogue.
Shenda Román, who plays the grandmother, is a legend in Chilean cinema. She was pretty much the most important actress in the movement called New Chilean Cinema in the late Sixties and early Seventies. She was the actress in Raul Ruiz’s first film, Tres Tristes Tigres, and the actress in Miguel Littín’s first film, El Chacal de Nahueltoro [Jackal of Nahueltoro], which is a milestone in Chilean cinema.
Chile is undergoing a thriving period in cinema now. The post-Pinochet generation of young filmmakers that, in the last couple of decades, are making films have a regular presence in the international film festival circuit. Do you feel part of this generation?
Yes, we all know each other and we talk. There are certain groups that are closer together than others. I would not say that we are a movement—the New Chilean Cinema was a movement, and they had a manifesto. They were made of two groups: the Littín group that was more realistic and the Ruiz group that was more surreal and intellectual. They had a common manifesto. It was really to fix the society that was happening at that point. They were committed to the Left, and they wanted to make films that pushed things into a certain direction. We have nothing like that, we live in a different time, we are more atomized in many ways, also style-wise. I think one of the good things about what is going on in Chile now is that the films are so diverse. There is no typical Chilean film. In some countries where there was a big wave a few years ago, you can almost tell what the typical film is. We don’t have that and I think that is a good thing. There’s a lot of collaboration. I am about to co-direct a film with Alicia Scherson who has co-written with me. There are people who produce films for other people so there is a nice degree of discussion, exchange, collaboration and help, but I would most definitely say that we are not really a movement. We are like a choir where everyone is singing different songs.
Is there a national identity, even though some of you live in Europe and some in the U.S.? Do you think of Chile when you make films?
I think that my films are very Chilean and there is something uniquely Chilean about them. At the same time when they are exposed to international audiences, people say: “This is just like my life.” I’m starting to work on a film that deals with Chilean history and in one way or another, there’s always something going on that is local and specific. I’m open to explore things in different directions, and at the end of the day it’s cinema and cinema is in a way our country.
A film has many layers and some of these layers are just for the Chilean audiences. I think with Voice Over that is especially the case. There are little jokes that only people in Chile laugh at and that has always been the case in my films since Optical Illusions. I remember once at a screening of Bonsai in San Sebastián, at some point just the people from Chile were laughing and at some other points everyone was laughing. At least for me, it’s always more special when you confront a Chilean audience and there’s a click.
Sofia is a vegetarian and she tries to disconnect from technology and to go through this kind of cleansing process, but at the same time she cheats a bit and asks her daughter to help her with Skype. That goes back to the idea that people are not so simple and are full of contradictions—
—and it’s not so simple to be radical. It’s like those people who claim they only want to eat healthy food and they start to make a list of all the things they can’t eat. I knew someone who had this list and the list was so big that at the end there was nothing this person could eat. But at the same time we can all identify with that notion, that impulse, to that extent. I always try to be nice to my characters, and I like them even when there’s someone who is a bit unlikable to a certain degree.
What kind of films were you watching while preparing Voice Over?
It’s always a big mix. When I started to write Voice Over, I was watching Edward Yang’s films. For example, I was watching Yi Yi a lot but then I shot Bonsai and there were some elements of Yi Yi that ended in Bonsai. I was also watching Hal Ashby’s films and Terrence Malick’s films. I’m a big Ozu fan. I also love early Ang Lee films and watched them again when I was preparing this film. I’m a big Kaurismäki fan, I’m a big Fassbinder fan, but I think my previous films were closer to those aesthetics and here we took a step backward… or forward. Voice Over was going to be more realistic and maybe the colors in this case match the Kaurismäki kind of aesthetics, but here I pushed towards something that had a bit more pulse, keeping the writing dramatic but light—with moments that are almost slapstick but filtered.
Just out of curiosity, did you ever get to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? [The main character in Bonsai struggles to read Proust in school.]
I did but I did not finish. I started reading it when I was more or less the same age as the character in Bonsai. I read the first three books and I stopped—I don’t know why I stopped. I read the first three very quickly and then something happened and I never continued. When I was promoting Bonsai, everyone in France wanted to talk to me about Proust, to discuss what was and wasn’t Proustian about the film. It was funny. And many people were telling me that if I had gone to school in France, I would know that you only read the first book, the last book, and you skim the rest because the important stuff is only in the beginning and the end. You don’t read three and stop! Now, a friend of mine from France gave me In Search of Lost Time in French so I have that at home to read now.