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Language As a Rehearsal Space: An Interview with Nele Wohlatz

"Creating something beautiful in a badly spoken language."
Nele Wohlatz. Photo by Maria Guillermima Lopez.
Born and raised in Germany, Nele Wohlatz has been working in Argentina for many years and has already stablished herself as a fresh voice in Latin American cinema today. After co-creating Ricardo Bär, the filmmaker wrote and directed her solo feature debut. I interviewed the filmmaker about El Futuro Perfecto, which will have its world premiere as part of the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the 69th Locarno Film Festival.
In El Futuro Perfecto, a Chinese immigrant girl struggles to both learn a new language and adapt to a new culture. Xiaobin can only express herself with the Spanish she learns at her language class and so her life in Buenos Aires becomes shaped by the limited vocabulary she can understand and use. The film takes an unexpected turn when Xiaobin renames herself as Beatriz. The act creates a new space within which she can rehearse her new life.    

NOTEBOOK: Like your main characters Xiaobin (Xiaobin Zhang) and Vijay (Saroj Kumar Malik), you also migrated from another country to Argentina. How much does the film mirror your own experience and how did you conceive your approach as a filmmaker to this subject?
NELE WOHLATZ: When I first had the idea for the film, I was living in Argentina for 3 or 4 years and I was still confused about myself being part of that society. Living far away from my mother tongue and not being able to catch the finer parts of my everyday language made me feel inept as a film director. So I thought, if I don’t feel part of the inner society, I should make something out of my foreign perspective. Make a film on a foreign woman in Buenos Aires and her foreign perspective.
I happened to teach German to make a living, so I asked in the language school if I could interview the students from the Spanish classes. They told me, "no problem," but that there were almost only Chinese students studying Spanish. The Chinese culture was completely unknown to me, and it intrigued me to work with someone who would be a foreigner to me and the other way around, to work on this film with an inherent distance between myself as the director and the protagonist. Even if we would become friends, there would always be a distance, which would reflect the distance I wanted to talk about, the distance between a foreigner and her new world.
Maybe this is what interests me in filmmaking: you create a whole system in order to tell a story. The story, the topic influences the language for the film, the film has its whole own system of rules for the acting, the camara style, the sound, and the art direction... So if the topic is “foreigner deals with problems of adaption to her new place,” it’s not only the topic of the story but of all the filmic devices.
Later, during the shooting, I realized that what we were actually doing was creating something beautiful in a badly spoken language, creating sense within a very poor language. That making this film was also about appropriating our new language. That made me very happy. In Germany, there’s this discussion going on if someone can be part of society without speaking German. But language is a living being, it’s never ready, and it doesn’t care too much about borders.
NOTEBOOK: Already the title, El futuro perfecto, announces a desire to freely present different paths for the same narrative. It feels like your film enjoys playing with fiction and fictionalizing real, quotidian events. What was your process writing and structuring the film?
WOHLATZ: I think to begin to live in a foreign language is quiet similar to the rehearsals for a theatre play. We have a language manual that teaches us sentences like “the cat is grey, the dog is black” or “one coffee and one mineral water, please” and it’s really difficult to be yourself, if you can only express yourself based on this strange text. In theatre, the director hands out the text for a play and says, “You are Hamlet, you are Ophelia”, and then the actors go through a process of rehearsing, in order to find out how they can actually be Hamlet or Ophelia.
The language school could be understood as a rehearsal stage for a new identity after immigration. That’s how I came up with idea of using the scenes in the language school as the structuring elements of the film. You have the scenes of the life of Xiaobin since her arrival to Buenos Aires, and you have the scenes in a language school where we see a group of Chinese students rehearsing their new text, which is the Spanish language. What Xiaobin studies in school, she tries out on the street, and the plot moves forward. Every time she learns something new, she can do more things and more things could happen in the film. That was the basic idea for the script.
At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I would invent a character, using material from different persons I interviewed, or if I would be casting until I had found the right person. Mainly, because when I knew Xiaobin she almost didn’t know any Spanish. But half a year later she did and I proposed to make a film on her life together. She was worried that her life wasn’t interesting enough and I told her that I didn’t think so, but that I wasn’t against fictionalizing. She accepted. Then we started spending a lot of time together, going to places in the city, to the movies and to talk a lot.
We talked about our experiences as foreigners in Buenos Aires, and I collected all the small anecdotes, observations and comments that might be interesting. She became someone I liked a lot and I became someone important to her, so there was a mutual influence from the beginning, which wouldn’t allow to distinguish too much between reality and imagination, fictionalization of real events.
For the dramatic structure, I asked Pío Longo for help. He has a classical script writing education from the National Film School and he would help me with the classical story telling elements, plot points and all that. But how would we make Xiaobin an actress of her own life? How would this process of fictionalizing her own life work? We had to try out what we were writing, so we started rehearsing with Xiaobin: she and Pio would act small dialogues we wrote based on the things she told me, and we tried to find out what worked, what wouldn’t work. The rehearsals were also acting classes, where we did very basic acting exercises. That was important in several ways: we would make jokes of ourselves, would leave our shame behind and gain mutual confidence. And I found out how to direct Xiaobin, what her possibilities as an actress were.
That was the first year. In the second year, I gave an acting workshop for Chinese Spanish students at the language school. I wanted the Spanish classes to be a “limbo,” I thought of Xiaobin’s classmates as a Greek chorus that interrupts the life of the protagonist and comments on it, judges or predicts. I had to invent “Spanish exercises” that would keep moving forward the plot, based on the more performative aspects of language classes.
In the workshop we repeated the same we did with Xiaobin, a mix of acting exercises and trying out scenes for the film. When I felt that it was the right moment, we started to shoot the scenes. The classroom you see in the film was our rehearsal space; most of the Chinese actors in the film were participants of the workshop.
NOTEBOOK: El futuro perfecto presents a very specific balance of joyful scenes and a strong sense of melancholy. How did you find this balance, and how do you approach comedy and drama as a filmmaker in general?
WOHLATZ: I wasn’t too conscious about that, it kind of turned out that way. Maybe it has to do with what I said before, with turning our handicaps in beauty, by turning a badly spoken everyday language in a medium for expression. Also, problems of translation have a great potential for comedy. Sometimes when Xiaobin told me about her experiences from the time she couldn’t speak Spanish, we ended up laughing about her mistakes. In the script writing, we took care of always letting her come out as a winner of a bad situation: she looses her job, after that she cannot order a meal in Spanish, but she ends up eating a hotdog; she cannot attend to a client because she doesn’t understand anything, but at the same time she’s conscious about the power of her not responding.   
At one point, I showed her some films by Buster Keaton and I told her that I enjoy it more when actors pass through funny things without an expression on their face than when they try to explain to me when I have to laugh.
I guess what you call balance of melancholy and humor is what I personally enjoy when watching films or art or reading books. I think it’s better to laugh about our mistakes than to grieve for them. Actually, maybe humor is the only weapon to confront the cruelty in the world.
NOTEBOOK: At some point in the narrative a love story emerges. It feels unique because the new couple needs to create its very own dynamics to communicate and to understand each other, while also dealing with their respective cultural differences. Could you comment on your decision to make Vijay, a man from India, Xiaobin’s love interest?
WOHLATZ: The love story is there because it’s a part of Xiaobin’s life. We discarded the possibility to shoot with her real boyfriend, not only because it was difficult to say when he would be in Argentina, but because their relationship is so complex, too fragile to be interfered with by a process like making this film. For Xiaobin, it seemed much more easy to fictionalize her boyfriend than to act with the real one.
So Malik is the only main cast in the film who doesn’t represent himself—and that was interesting. The relationship between Vijay and Xiaobin kept being a mystery to me; I couldn’t explain it, only describe it in some fragments, observations a made, or anecdotes they told me. Malik is totally different from the real Vijay: he’s from another religious cast, he’s not a programmer but a cook, his marriage was arranged by his family, he has a child. I think him being another person saved me from trying to tell the “real love story,” it helped to be descriptive, and to leave it as the mystery that it is to me.
I tried to focus on the aspects that reveal something about Xiaobin’s process of arrival in her new society: that she chooses someone in a “limbo position” like her, not from Argentina, neither from China, a foreigner to her, but as a foreigner also in a similar situation and therefore equal to her. That handicaps like not being able to speak the official language can work as a bond. That she’s looking forward to confront her parents with a provocation, as a part of her coming-of-age conflict. 
I mainly changed one thing: the real Vijay only speaks English, another language that Xiaobin hardly knows, but I preferred not to bring in another language.
NOTEBOOK: The daily life of Xiaobin in Argentina seems shaped by the vocabulary and grammar she learns from the books at her Spanish course. But as Xiaobin renames herself Beatriz/Sabrina her character gains new layers. What is the role of language in the film and how does it limit her character? How do these limits trigger the development of something altogether new for her?
WOHLATZ: I think that language determines us, that we can only think as far as words allow us to do so. Maybe that’s why it’s so humiliating to start living in new language as an adult.
So I thought of Xiaobin’s character as determined by her new language, and as a character evolving throughout the film as she speaks more Spanish. At the beginning, there are hardly any dialogues at all, since she doesn’t speak any Spanish. In that part, the mise en scène is also more schematic: scenes at the beginning don’t develop much in time, they are mainly told in only one shot, as if they where written by a short memory without too many details.
When Xiaobin starts studying Spanish she receives a new name, Beatriz, like a first hypothetical new identity. When I knew Xiaobin, she presented herself as “Beatriz” to me, but it was already, like, the third name she was trying out. Spanish names seemed like dresses to her which she would try out, looking for the one that suites her new role, her new identity.
In that part, she would take the dialogues from the language manual and try them out on the street, because it’s the only tool she has. What happens when one can only speak in sentences from the language manual? How far can you get with this? How do you help yourself when the language doesn’t help you at all? In the first part, we thought about these kind of questions.
Before Xiaobin renames herself for the second time, before she tries out to be “Sabrina,” there’s an ellipsis. Suddenly, there’s already an intimacy established with Vijay and his time in Argentina is over, he’s about to go back to India. In that part, Xiaobin’s speech is more fluent. It’s also in that part that we invented different opportunities for Xiaobin to talk in Chinese. After being humiliated as someone who struggles to express herself, she gains the dignity and calm of someone who can unite identity and language. Of course, she had never lost her ability to talk in her mother language, but it takes her some time until she finds the opportunities to integrate it into her new everyday life and to complete her new identity as someone who is living in two everyday languages.
In that second part, scenes are longer, have more development and more shots. And it’s only in the end of the film, in the futures, where we would use continuity editing as a support for the fictionalization.
NOTEBOOK: The relationship between the camera and your lead actress is very intimate.  Her presence and her silence seem to be key tools to expose the complexity of the character. How did you cast Xiaobin Zhang? Also, from rehearsals to the shooting, could you comment on the approach you developed with her and how this process ultimately affects the finished film?
WOHLATZ: I interveiwed all the Chinese students at the language school who would accept. Xiaobin was the one who spoke less Spanish but intrigued me a lot, as much for her presence in front of the camera as for the few things I knew about her. She was 17 years old and in the middle of a coming-of-age-conflict. She just had met her parents for the first time since her childhood, because they had left her back in China when they migrated to Argentina, and she knew her little siblings only after her arrival. Her family lives isolated, doesn’t speak any Spanish, want her to stick to their traditions. But after having passed her teenage-hood far from her family, she wouldn’t accept them telling her what do do. She wouldn’t waste energy in fighting with her parents, she just said “yes” to everything and prepared her battle for independency in silence, secretly saving money, secretly signing up at the Spanish school, secretly having a boyfriend. She’s like an antique Chinese warlord. I understood that she has a very strong character and that she’s making her very own decisions, so working with her wouldn’t be possible in a manipulating way, only as a team.
During the rehearsal process, I was figuring out how to direct Xiaobin, and how to develop her approach to acting in a way that would intrigue me. I told her that we cannot really know who we are, and that therefore I don’t like actors to overact trying to explain their character, using stereotypes. It’s much more intriguing not to explain everything. That seemed to be comforting to her, because she’s a little bit shy. I even ended up directing her not very subtle, telling her to “look more afraid,” “more ashamed” and so on, because she would never overact, just take my instructions in a very subtle way, which I liked.
In the rehearsals, we also explored experiences that we made as foreigners: The sudden urge to talk in our mother language in order to create intimacy, even though if the other doesn’t understand our talking. Or the power of not understanding the other, how to drive crazy someone who tries to communicate him or herself with you, and you just don’t respond. Or ways of declaring a text in a foreign language, where you can’t tell if someone is acting a role or “acting a language.”
I think Xiaobin is not afraid of the new, she totally embraces it. She gets bored very quickly, but while something is new to her she will be curious, it doesn’t matter what it is. Like an actress who starts acting an emotion in order to convince herself about her acting, she prefers to does things rather than to rest.
NOTEBOOK: Would you mind commenting on the enigmatic final scene—and especially the curious presence of the cat, that, in fact, appears throughout the film as a body that can move between the real and the imaginary?
WOHLATZ: Xiaobin's story as narrated in the film is structured through the Spanish classes. The film starts with an exercise of the past tense, which allows us to go back to the past: Xiaobin's arrival and start in Argentina. So it was logical to end by an exercise about the future, more precisely, the conditional tense which is a hypothetical future, the grammatical tense that allows us to imagine. That allowed us to incorporate Xiaobin’s future, but since we can only talk about the future in a hypothetical way, there could be a never-ending number of futures.
Xiaobin has quite a bad memory, I think she’s not interested in past things. When I told her about my idea for the different futures as endings for the film, the same night, she sent me an email with four fantasies about her future. This email is the script for the futures you see in the film. I like it that they are a little bit exaggerated, that she seemed to have melodrama as a genre in her mind when she wrote them, but that they all deal with her real life conflicts. I think that her fantasies are as important as her everyday life, so I really wanted to give them space in the film.
The cat is borrowed from the history of another Chinese immigrant who told me about her intentions to kidnap one of the straw cats in the botanical garden of Buenos Aires. She had a very different approach to her new place, she was missing her family back in China, she seemed to have a harder time to adapt and to start feeling home. Xiaobin isn’t interested in pets. So originally the cat entered the script as an element to discuss concepts of feeling at home. Then, we found out that it can also be charged with desires for the future, and be, like you said, an element that takes you to different levels of reality and imagination, like the rabbit that takes Alice into the wonderland. I don’t know if it’s real or not. Both, I guess. 
NOTEBOOK: How were production decisions made about budget, shooting schedule, technical structure, choice of crew and cast or number of takes? To what extent these choices shape the final film?
WOHLATZ: When we needed to start shooting because Xiaobin and the other Chinese actors were ready to begin, our budget was too small. So we worked in a very small team and everyone was taking more responsibilities and worked much more than his or her credit would mean. Even Xiaobin became part of the production team, helping us to get the Chinese locations and cast!
The main shooting was from November to February. It was very long because Xiaobin worked from Monday to Friday and we couldn’t pay her out in order to interrupt her work. So during the week we made the pre-production for the next weekend. That’s why the film has two directors of photography and several soundmen, because we shot during several month.
During the week, I also completed the script. When we started, we had already written the dramatic structure and it didn’t changed, but a lot of details hadn’t been there. I didn’t know at the beginning, but I ended up writing almost every dialogue word by word.
With Cecilia Salim we agreed on spending our honorary as director and producer on the production, but even though we had a very limited budget we couldn’t pay locations. That’s why some locations could only be used during the lunchbreak, and we had to shoot many shots in a very short time. Of course, I would have loved to have more time and money at the locations in order to work more differentiated with the light. But in terms of working with Xiaobin and Malik, I think we had the time for shooting that we needed because they didn’t work for more than 8 to 13 takes.
NOTEBOOK: What is the editing process like for you?
WOHLATZ: Since we had such a long shooting, I started to visualize and to edit the material in between and Ana Godoy edited my rough cut. Editing took her only four weeks. It was my first film with such a written structure; in my other films it was much more about finding their structure during the editing process. The script worked out well, so the editing was quiet easy and pleasuring.
Before finishing, we discussed if there was something missing. In the end, the problem wasn’t that something was missing for the narrative, but to interrupt the story a little more and create some moments of air. So we shot two additional moments to put in between scenes with a lot of dialogue. Then we edited two more days.
NOTEBOOK: There is a considerable number of Latin American and especially Argentinian films at Locarno this year. What are your thoughts on independent cinema in Argentina today? Are there any names that you would like to mention because the work of these filmmakers in particular intrigues or excites you?
WOHLATZ: There are many interesting filmmakers like Martín Rejtman or Matías Piñeiro. Also in literature there are so many writers experimenting with genres and formats, like Cesar Aira, Fabio Kacero, Pablo Katchadjian. Maybe the borders between the real and the imaginary aren’t very tight in Argentina. That’s what I enjoyed very much after moving from Germany.
Also, in the past years, life in Buenos Aires wasn’t too expensive and we had the opportunity to make films with a very low funding from the Argentine film Iinstitute. That allowed to make El futuro perfecto and also Ricardo Bär, which I made before as a co-director. Things are changing a lot since the last elections, and also the film institute is restructuring its funding system right now. I hope that in the future there will still be funding for small, experimental films and not only for the industry. 

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