Nervous Translation (Philippines, 2017) and the tasks/processes of perception [New Directors/New Films 2018]

Between broad historical/temporal markers of random television news broadcasts of President Marcos and/against the ‘people’ or Typhoon Unsang and the ‘old-fashionedness’ of media objects (television set, telephone, radio/boombox, newspapers) in the film’s main location that is a house, one could deduce the fact that Shireen Seno’s latest feature is set in 1980s Philippines. In retrospect, one could use these historical/temporal markers to temper the meaning of what unfolds in the film as a possible political allegory. But Seno smartly leaves this kind of reading as a soft option, seeing as it neither takes away from nor acutely enhances the experiences of a little girl living in this corner of the world at this particular moment in time in this specific place. Seno prefers to give center stage to the enclosed, limited perceptual world of eight-year-old Yael (Jana Agoncillo), who lives in the house with her mother Val (Angge Santos).

Yael is a child of routine/ritual and forced circumstances: she lives in a one-parent household, with her mother often absent from the house due to her work. Not that her parents are divorced. Her father is simply absent from the home as well as the country due to his own work in Saudi Arabia. Often left to her own devices, Yael lives her life in a world of her own construction in conversation with what she gleans from what is around her. The film is mainly confined to the house and the passing of time as well as the time period are deliberately hazy, thus bespeaking the film’s choice to stick with Yael’s perspective throughout the film. In many ways, her house is like a dollhouse with adult-size furnishings, with the exception of her miniature cooking/dining utensils and stove, which she uses very thoughtfully and carefully to prepare herself miniature meals in her mother’s absence.

The outside world converses with her perceptual realm in various guises as food for thought. Firstly, through her mother Val, who experiences the corporeal and emotional loneliness of having her husband away from her. Yael catches glimpses of her mother’s longing – such as composing cassette tape letters to her husband via the boombox – though presumably she does not entirely grasp it, as it manifests itself in fatigue and sporadic detachment. Secondly, through school and the friends with whom she speaks on the telephone and does homework, though one never sees them or the school in the film. Thirdly, through different media, but mainly the television and the boombox, which enables her to repeatedly listen to her father’s cassette tape letters addressed to her and her mother, rewinding and fast forwarding, and even recording her own versions of his words without necessarily fully understanding their meaning. Occasionally, the television is on as it broadcasts news of national significance, when the mother is not watching a television drama to which she falls asleep on a regular basis, or an advert for a Japanese pen to which she becomes very attached in buying. Fourthly, through the visit of her uncle Ton, his wife, and their children, and eventually other guests, which ever so subtly hints at the ambiguity as to who really is Yael’s father. Though at most peripheral, Sid Lucero’s turn as Ton proves yet again how much of a presence he is in any film, as a main, secondary, or even tertiary character. He exudes incredible magnetism, with or without dialogue. But rather than run with this dropped potential plot point, the film opts to stick with Yael and her experience of, well, experiencing things and situations. And pursuing this situation with her uncle Ton – if it is even palpable to her mind – is just not a priority of hers.

And herein lies perhaps the key motif at work in the enigmatically titled Nervous Translation: not perception per se but the still-developing processes of perceiving things, situations, relationships, interests, etc. for a child like Yael and of making meaning(s) of (and for) herself, the people whom she sees, and the rest of the world that reaches her through various media. In this way, the title becomes less unapproachable when one considers that the act of translating is about expressing one thing/meaning – say, the act of perceiving – into another language/medium – say, the act of making meaning for onself in words or actions – at a most basic level. In this regard, Yael’s repeating/recording of her father’s words from his cassette tape letters becomes one of her many acts of ‘translation,’ as is her heated pursuit of the Japanese ‘ningen pen’ or using white-out on her mother’s hair so as to earn more change with which to buy the pen.

Unlike the ‘softness’ of the option of the historical/temporal markers for the spectator as a guide to making sense of the film, Seno thus is more exacting when it comes to situating the spectator within Yael’s perceptual and meaning-making perspectives. Doing so means that a substantial amount of imagery, events, and situations are presented loosely, in keeping with adopting a child’s point of view, with their meanings in relationship to each other and to the characters left either deferred or dangling – as in the situation with uncle Ton. The result can leave the spectator at times thrilled with the opportunity to make his/her own meaning(s) in dialogue with Yael and at other times cold and wondering why one should care at all.

The film walks this fine line throughout its running time and leans towards the thrilled for the most part; at least, until roughly the last twenty minutes of the film. At times, with the bop of the electronic music and quirky images, sometimes presented in quick montages, the film feels like a music video caught in a loop, as quickly forgotten by a child (and spectator) as the last situation or activity upon entering into another.

Nervous Translation is showing on April 7 and 8 April as part of MoMA’s 2018 ‘New Directors/New Films’ series.