a short response to Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation.

a still from the trailer: the gates of Yael’s home

Set in 1987, Nervous Translation follows the life of Yael, a shy girl who prefers writing over dancing during family gatherings, and her mother who works in a shoe factory. Her father works in Saudi Arabia and regularly sends recorded tapes, in place of letters, which Yael listens to in the small hours that she is alone.

It’s kind of interesting to me— I’m not sure if it would be the same for the reader— that I’m also having my own nervous time trying to translate my responses to this film. Perhaps I should begin with an explanation why I use the word “response”, rather than “review” or a heady “critique” for these particular blog entries.

Rather than solely focusing on the formal elements of a review essay or criticism, I also want to take up how I relate to a certain film or, later on, a story or image. This doesn’t mean I won’t be talking about specific elements in the work, such as sound and color, cinematography and plotting, just that I want, maybe, to sound a little more human when I talk about things.

Also, I figured responding to a piece rather than reviewing or critiquing it would marginally reduce the risk of me giving out spoilers. Because responding to a work of art would mean taking on it on a personal level, and when I talk of personal experiences and memories, especially of my childhood, I veer towards the vague.  Enough of that.

Yael’s father, who works in Riyadh, sends tape recordings instead of letters. She listens to them often, until such time that a new pile of tapes arrive.

As Yael goes through a precarious time, so is the country: Marcos had just been ousted and the Philippines is in a period of transition. The unmanageable and confusing is reconciled and tamed by her imagination— hostile cousins, loneliness, adult matters kept from her, and the presence of other people disrupting her interior life. Director Shireen Seno’s writing renders this flawlessly and subtly. This showed through a scene where her Uncle Ton (played by Sid Lucero) teaches her to use a comma for clarity. Yael spells comma as ‘kama’ (bed) in a sentence that involves her mother and Uncle Ton.

The film is filled with tight shots of Yael’s home, and I think these are the scenes that drew me in. Whereas in other films tight shots or scenes lingering on architecture or landscape appear to be senseless and/or useless, Seno presents these as a way of amplifying Yael’s smallness but without diminishing her presence.  The film also achieves this through the use of sound, the house breathes, Yael interprets the sound of the wind and their ref through writing, telling us about how she pays attention to and interprets her surroundings. There is little dialogue, but Seno’s writing and direction coupled with Jana Agoncillo’s acting gave viewers the nearest approximation of the quiet, rarified atmosphere of being a child. Because childhood is rarely represented as quiet— films about and especially for children are often loud and brash, which do not allow for the exploration of one’s interiority when one was small and understood everything in novel, illuminating ways.

I am not saying that children will enjoy Nervous Translation— my senior mother thought it was dragging, but I would like to laud Seno and her film for creating something that understands specific points and experiences in a life. Not only of a child but of those around her. Life is a looming mess waiting to rain on your head, yet I think this film provides us with a realization or a reminder that there is a moment where we will be allowed to think through and think back, and which can open another way to understand and be understood.

I also think of Nervous Translation as a collage. In part because of its cuts and interlude, but also in the way that Yael tries to translate herself into the world around her as she is trying to translate the world based on what she knows and on the things she can use.  This is a film not only about and for feeling, but also about learning, which is, I think, a great pleasure— when you uncover something or reach a point of clarity and perception. Another thing is that the film presents this as a process where things do not necessarily fall in a predictable line, but as a series of images and moments that may need reconciliation. Yael also reaches this point in the film; Seno assures us with a scene along the water and across a bridge.

Trailer stills were taken from Sine Pelikula (Youtube), you may find the full trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3V-IbHxHTY

For a more comprehensive summary and practical information on Nervous Translation, you may visit the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) site: https://iffr.com/en/2018/films/nervous-translation