Synopsis : In an attempt to salvage the long-strained relationship between her mother and grandmother, a filmmaker confronts traumatic family secrets with her camera.
CA: Thank you all. We have a lot of [team members] here in the audience. Firstly, one of the incredible editors, Isidore Bethel, James Bonanno, who designed the film’s logo, my amazing producer Elliott Whitton, our sound designer Eli Cohn and Jack Sasner, our SFX editor. A few EPs [Executive Producers] and co-EPs Cory Koller, Diane Moy Quon, and Kellen Quinn who is also my partner.
Q&A with Director Chloe Abrahams Moderated by Eric Hynes
Q: How far back was the project in your mind when you thought of the film? When did it start to come together as some early version of what we see here?
CA: The idea of the film began in 2018, and really out of this intense need to get something out, this pain that I’d see in my mum, even though she didn’t express it in her daily life necessarily. But it’s something that I could feel, and I wanted to do something for her. I initially thought that I would make a film about reconnecting with my grandma, who I didn’t know. I’d met her a couple of times in my life, and I’d had all these negative associations with her and how she had affected my mum. I thought that if I made a film, I could reconnect with her and maybe do something for my mum.
As I was filming, it became clear that it was so much more about my mum rather than my grandma. Then as that continued, even in just the last year, I realized it was about myself. There were so many different things over the years.
Q: Did the idea that being more narrow than you realized actually help with the other idea that it was going to be about, and help you get closer to your mother?
CA: Yeah, I think that’s right. I didn’t think I needed to get closer to my mother, I thought we had a great relationship. But I think it’s only when you actually start asking questions that you realize that there’s so much that — I know so much that I didn’t know about my mum, even though I thought we had a close relationship. Now it’s so much stronger because of it, and then focusing on her helped me to uncover things about myself.
Q: Were there things that you hadn’t talked about previously, but the camera and the project helped you get there?
CA: Yes, I think almost everything that’s in the film. [laughs]
Q: Had you been filming your mom for a long time or was it just specific to this?
CA: It was really only specific to this. We didn’t have video cameras growing up, so we don’t have much archival footage of when I was younger or anything like that. It was only when I started making this film that it was for this very specific purpose.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your shooting style, and what you were interested in in terms of what to show, what to avoid, and also how much to show off yourself?
CA: Yeah, the handy-cam became this part of myself, or an extension of myself. One astonishing thing, I was embarrassed by it. I felt that if you made a film, you had to make a film with a big camera and be really flashy and do what people say is cinematic. Even when I started shooting with the handy-cam, I got feedback from people being like, “Oh, could you just shoot it better?” So I had this stigma of these lower-resolution images, and it continued, really until the film was almost finished. It took me a while to get over that while I was filming.
It started off as a tool my friend had told me, “Oh, you should just take this with you and film yourself and record diaries and just talk to it. You don’t need to use any of it.” Much of it I didn’t use, but I did use it as somebody to talk to, and some of that ended up being edited and rewritten as voiceover. But I didn’t end up using that material in the film. But it was this really comfortable way to film at home and to try and get further than I could with my questions.
I think the way you wrote about it for the synopsis for the festival was exactly right, to kind of pushing this technology further than it could bear and to try and get some answers that I couldn’t get. Using the Zoom in ways like, I want to get into your head but I cannot do that. So it became the manifestations of my emotions as well.
Q: There are scenes in the film with a couple of moments when it seems like there is a more deliberate scene-making involved. There is that conversation with [your grandmother] in a bedroom where you’re not holding the camera, and there’s also where you’re on the roof reading the letter. Those seem deliberate, like they were prepared. Can you talk about the preparation?
CA: Yes, actually, those two scenes were the first scenes that were ever shot for the film. It was when I had this idea of, I’m going to make this film and I need this — I brought a friend who had this fancy camera and this naive approach to filmmaking. I was, “I’m going to fix everything by going here with this fancy camera, and it’s going to be great.” It comes across in the images as well, as this distance and pristine-ness that doesn’t show in the handy-cam. I couldn’t talk to my grandma in the same way that I could talk to my mum. And that was how that way of shooting reflected that distance but trying to do something.
Q: There is plenty of tension in the film, but that tension is not necessarily seen in your interactions with them. There is no overt pushback to your filmmaking and to your being there. She seems willing to be on camera. Neither seemed resistant to your being there filming. They actually seemed quite poised and willing to be on camera. Can you tell us what that meant to your relationship?
CA: I couldn’t tell you why, to be honest. They were both so open and willing to be part of this. I think it must be because of whatever relationship I had with them both. Even though I would have said my relationship with my grandma was difficult in the beginning, she always had this love for me and wanted to be part of it because of that. She’s someone who would always tell her story and wanted it to be spoken about, even though it was very difficult for me at moments. The same with my mom. She’s always been very open about speaking about her experiences and knowing that it could help people. That’s what she really wanted with this.
Q: Can you talk about the arc of the film, and also what that last scene might mean?
CA: Yeah, that last scene, we shot that in August. We almost finished the film without that. It was mostly the same story, but it’s a slightly more complex feeling at the end. Even after I knew that she wanted to leave, my producer and I spoke at length and we were not really sure if we needed to include that in the film, even though she decided that.
But I went to Sri Lanka almost to see for myself if it was really true that she did want to leave. Going there, she was almost like this completely different person, and there was this huge weight lifted off her. I had a plan to shoot, and I wanted to have this conversation somewhere else, and we were going to start the camera again. And then I was sitting by the beach with her and filming the waves, and then she just started speaking. It was very serendipitous that it happened in that way. I’m so glad we could give her that ending, actually, because she didn’t get to leave. We were waiting for her visa, and it didn’t come through in time. But I think it feels incredibly special that we got to give her that.
Q: Can you talk about country music?
CA: It’s just a thing. No, country music has been the soundtrack to my life because it’s the soundtrack to my mum’s life and the soundtrack to my grandma’s life. On top of that, it speaks to the story in this really heartbreaking way, actually. Through the making of this film, I got to listen to the lyrics of these songs. The moment that really sticks with me is when I knew I wanted a shot of my mum in the bath because she takes baths all the time, for hours and hours and hours. So I asked her if she would be okay if we got a shot of her in the bath, and she said yes.
Then she filled in the bubbles and tipped her cap-thing on, and then we’re sitting there in silence and she’s like, “It’s too quiet. We need music.” She chose the music and she put on this Kenny Rogers song. I was crying behind the camera, because I had heard the song before, but I had never listened to the lyrics. It completely broke my heart, and that happened with so many of the other songs. They would come in organically into our lives in some way and we captured them on camera. It had to be in there.
Q: Can you talk about the eastern sky and the decision to go to that place?
CA: Yeah, I think with things like the sky and the water and the road and all these things — I guess places where my eyes would go when my mind is thinking about something else. It’s a space of relief and breath, and so much can happen in that space that’s internal. I wanted to give the people who are watching the film that internal space to go, and not necessarily for me to tell them everything to look at.
Q: Has your mother seen the film, and what does she think?
CA: Yeah, my mum’s seen a bunch of cuts, and she was with us at the premiere at True/False [festival], and had such a good time. Oh, Eric, you were there dancing with her. She’s got some videos.
Q: She wanted to set up a Tinder account for me, which was really intense.
CA: It’s true. She tried to take a picture of Eric to put on Tinder so that he could find a partner.
I showed her a few cuts along the way. One time, when it was very close to being finished, after I had included my own story and after I told her what happened, we had a screening with all the Sri Lankan aunties. We rented out a screening room in London and it was amazing. I was so nervous before, but there were like 19 Sri Lankan aunties and some of their daughters, and we watched the film. We went to the pub afterwards and we talked for hours. I’ve known these women my whole life, and we’ve never had these kinds of conversations. So it was really, really special. And my mum really loves that. It’s difficult for her to watch, but she’s really pleased and really happy, and she wants to talk about this.
Q: Has this film inspired you to be a part of filmmaking, or are you satisfied with what you set out to do and you’re ready to switch gears?
CA: It’s a lot to make a film, especially that sort of film. All of my work before this has also been personal. Right now it’s very fresh, so I probably want to say that I never want to make a personal film ever again — and in a few months, that might change. So right now, this particular story feels like it’s whole and it’s continuing its life, and I think this year is also going to be part of that. I’m thinking about next things, and I’ll always be making things that are somewhat personal to me, because that’s what drives you to make [films]. But whether it will be something as excavating as this, I don’t know.
Q: How does hair figure in the film?
CA: Thank you for asking that. When I shaved my hair, I was coming to terms with what happened to me. I know there are people who feel the same, and perhaps people here might relate. But there is something connected with hair and femininity, but also with unwanted attraction or something like that, and shedding it feels like some kind of control.
Hair can signify so many different things to so many different people, and especially women. The ways that my mum and my grandma and I relate to hair is different, and I wanted that to be a part of it. Also in terms of watching my mum do her hair and do her makeup, it’s like these things, childlike things, looking up to your parents, seeing them do these daily-life, routine, mundane things, that hold a lot of significance somehow.
Q: Were you curious about the natural places, situations, locations, where you and your mother would talk, and were you employing those for cinematic spaces?
CA: A couple of times I’d say, “Oh, Mum, shall we just go sit on the sofa and talk, or shall we go outside and look at this, or should we do this?” But they would always be in places where we would have conversations naturally. Yeah, I think it was a combination of both. Also, I was working with one of my editors, Stella Heath-Keir, from 2019 for a couple of years on and off, and we would shoot and edit simultaneously, trying different things.
Q: What were the big challenges at the end? Was there so much material, or was there figuring out what you didn’t have and taking more time to get that?
CA: There was never so much material. For this film, I worked very much from small film outlets, and I know that a lot of filmmakers start with a lot of material and kindof wiggle their way down. But for this film, it was very much about starting with small pieces and then putting them together and building them outwards. There were a lot of challenges in the editing, to begin with. I think the biggest challenge was finding the balance of putting my own story into it. It was only, really, in the last two weeks of editing that that scene where I tell my mum what happened to me actually came into the film. I was very happy to finish it without that — and it was working — but I wasn’t ready to tell my mum, so I didn’t fit in there.
I was doing an editing residency at the Jacob Burns Film Center [Pleasantville, NY]. I had access to the recording studio, and I decided on the last day that I was going to go in and make the most of this time. I’ll go in and speak whatever I want. I went in, and I started speaking to my mum, as if it were to my mum, and that came out. And as soon as I said the words out loud, I knew I was ready to tell her. I also then knew I was ready to put it in the film. That was the only take that I ever did of that particular voiceover. I went home a few days later and I told her. It was beautiful.
Q: Do you think now in retrospect that the film was not ready to be done until after that?
CA: Maybe. Yeah, maybe. There’s definitely a world where this film was finished without that, and I have no idea how that film could be. I feel okay with both versions. I wouldn’t have wanted to push myself just to make the film. I needed to be ready myself.
Q: Could you talk about collaborating with the composer [Suren Seneviratne] besides country music? It sets up a lot for inner feelings and self-discovery.
CA: Thank you so much for mentioning that. I couldn’t believe I forgot. My composer is also my cousin, and we share the same grandmother. It was amazing working with him. I’ve loved his music forever and I’ve always wanted to work with him. He was on board from the beginning, so there was no one else. All of the cues were done live, so if I wanted to change a little thing, he had to redo the whole thing. Which was a challenge in some ways, but also it captured the rawness and the texture in the same way that the handy-cam did, and that was what was important.
I wish he were here to be able to speak more about the concept of making it. I wanted the score to counteract what could have been heavy in the film, and to make it simple but something dreamlike and ethereal, like a lot of his music anyway. So it was very easy to work with him on that. I wish he were here because I can’t speak about it as well as he could.
I don’t know how I would have done this without other people. This was really so much of a group effort, and every single person who was in the credits — and even people who might not have been to the thanks but anyone I might have had a conversation with — would have impacted this film. It’s like every single little collaboration is so important. It has to be that way for me.
I also would like to share some news with you, some fairly recent news. Two days ago, Nana passed away. I’m still processing that, so I don’t know how this is going to go tonight. But I’m really grateful to be here and to share our story with you, and we can remember her together.
Q: Thank you.