The two stars of IDFA's opening night, directors Mehrdad Oskouei (Sunless Shadows) and Carol Nguyen (No Crying at the Dinner Table) get together for a conversation about giving voice to the voiceless.
During Wednesday's opening ceremony, IDFA gave the stage to the youngest director with a film in the festival program. As it turns out, 21-year-old Vietnamese-Canadian director Carol Nguyen's student film No Crying at the Dinner Table has a lot in common with opening film Sunless Shadows by Mehrdad Oskouei. We got them together for a lively conversation about getting your subjects to open up on camera, the power of an interview, and giving a voice to the voiceless.
Carol Nguyen: "I recently read a quote by a documentary filmmaker on social media, who said: no-one is ever voiceless, but some people don't have the privilege or the platform to get their voice out there. I agree with that. Everyone has a voice, everyone has something to say. But not everyone has the privilege to lift their voice and give it the platform we as filmmakers have."
Mehrdad Oskouei: "That idea of giving voice to the voiceless is really important to me as a filmmaker. I've been trying to do this for the last two decades and it has totally changed my way of thinking and of living. It has changed me dramatically. My grandfather and my father were both political prisoners. When I was a teenager, my family had a lot of financial problems and no-one helped us. Back then I always asked myself why no-one cared about us, why no-one heard us – we were voiceless. Experiencing that kind of pain really motivated me to try to help people who are helpless and voiceless."
CN: "Before you introduce a camera, you have to build trust with your subjects. You have to develop a relationship before you add this lens, which is the eye of thousands. My film stars my own family – my mom, dad and sister. We get them to discuss secrets they've never told anyone before to the camera. I talked with them a lot before the camera was turned on. And because I already started making documentary films in high-school, my parents had years of experience getting to know the camera prior to making this film."
MO: "With Sunless Shadows, it was important for me to communicate what it meant for them to be in prison through the camera. I wanted the audience to share the atmosphere of that place, and this was really difficult. Simply showing the girls in their daily life there was not enough; I had to find some way to activate them to tell their stories in front of a camera. To get them to talk about what it means to decide to kill someone. On the surface the film is about killing. But underneath that runs a current of all the different ideas, thoughts, positions, and reasons the girls have for their actions. It's like two rivers, one with hot water and one with cold, running into each other. For instance, one of the girls tells us how she killed her father, but at the same time also says she misses him and wants to talk to him. That's a very simple scene, but the subtext is very complex."
CN: I think often when people tell their own stories, they can say things that they don't mean exactly. No Crying at the Dinner Table is trying to gage into my family's subconscious, to try to explain the deep feelings they can't yet articulate. I want to get at those things that you've never talked about before, things you're struggling to understand yourself. Those things are the poetic parts of interviews."
MO: "Interviews are one of the tools I'm most comfortable with, I think I'm a strong interviewer. But in this film I felt that establishing that dialog wasn't enough to get to their reasons for what happened. So I decided to give them a camera and asked them to speak openly, with no-one else there. The only witness was the camera. Of course, I knew that the girls would be aware of the fact that other people would see this footage. I wanted to give them a voice, so in fact, it was good for them to be aware of that. There are many things that they have never been able to talk about with anyone, and this was an opportunity for them to do that."
CN: "When you show that footage to their mothers, we see how they cry. My film also ends with my family listening to their own interviews. I wasn't sure what would happen; whether they would cry, or just sit there awkwardly. In the end, that moment really changed us as a family. What you don't see in the film is that not only were they crying in front of the camera, but I'm crying behind the camera, the crew is crying. There's this atmosphere of just letting go of all this tension that had been built over over a week of shooting, and being really vulnerable in front of each other."
MO: "When protagonists trust you, they welcome the camera. Because they feel it will help them to air their words. These girls have completely lost their belief in the judiciary system, because they feel they don't deserve what happened to them and no-one in the system listens to what they have to say. So when they talk to the camera, it's an opportunity to defend themselves and to speak about what they really felt in those moments."