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Barbara Wurm: Welcome to the 54th Forum, Darrel, with your wonderful film OASIS OF NOW. Your film premiered in Busan last year. When did the journey start for you?

Chia Chee Sum: First of all, I would like to thank the Berlinale Forum for having us. It’s been quite a long journey for me personally. I started the project at SEAFIC, the Southeast Asia Fiction Film Lab. And then during the funding process, I approached different international co-producers. But in terms of the conception of the project itself, I always wanted to talk about my feelings, my relationship with my stepfamily. So it’s a personal connection, but I didn’t know how to express that. I think the idea of doing this started off when I was having a conversation with my late grandfather about his sister who was living in China and who he never got a chance to meet. During that conversation, I had certain feelings about how to express this relationship. Then I tried to make short films and of course didn’t think about making a feature film yet. But how to express this feeling about a place I’m familiar with and my connection to my family and stepfamily, that was pretty much the starting point.

BW: And at what point did it become clear that this autobiographical core, which seems so central, was going to disappear from the film we ended up seeing? How did you take yourself out of it?

CSC: I mentioned just now that I made two short films. So these two short films also started from the same intention to express my relationship, my connection with a place, my family, my stepfamily. But I never really did it in an autobiographical kind of way. But when I looked for the cast, the main characters in the film, they shared certain personality traits of mine and experiences I have had. But I don’t know whether that really took me out of the film or not.

There are a lot of different ways in which I structured the story and framed the world

Christiane Büchner: When I saw your film the second time, I was paying attention to other things The first time, I was very much involved in Hanh being a migrant and her very precarious economic situation, and I couldn’t really follow the family story. The family story came to the fore when I watched it the second time. How did you interweave these two narrative lines?

CSC: Maybe it’s because of the way I experience that specific place, because it’s actually the apartment block that my stepfamily lives in. I made the film very much based on my familiarity with the place and how I used to use the space there. They are also very kind to me, to be honest. The first time I went there was when I was ten years old. My mother took me there. And because I grew up in a Chinese squatted settlement, when I came to an apartment like this, it was quite fun. You have corridors, you have children playing and stuff like that. But somehow, no matter how kind they were to me. I always stayed in the staircase area, the corridor area. I could still hear their voices from inside the house, and they knew I was still around, but I could stay at a comfortable distance. It was also good to sometimes avoid awkward moments. Chinese in Malaysia, we can sometimes be a bit complicated; when it came to taking family photos, it was awkward for them as to whether they should include me or not. So it was better to keep a distance. Maybe because of this distance I found my way to film, because that’s how I know the place so well. Perhaps that’s what makes you feel like there are a lot of different ways in which I structured the story and framed the world. Maybe you see it like that. There’s Hanh as a person, then above that the layer of her life as an undocumented migrant and then another, more subtle layer about her family relationships, whereby we are not so sure whether they are family or not. So I think that is part of the reason why there are different layers to the film.

CB: I always felt this knowledge of the place through the character Hanh. She knows this place from many perspectives. She knows all the objects people live with. She knows places where she feels comfortable. She knows how to get away from the place or to hide within it. It’s fascinating because she’s always changing. So I was really wondering how you wrote the script.

CSC: I’m not someone very good at writing. I start with images. I basically start the writing process with what happens on screen. And I’ve also received a lot of criticism for that, of course, because it’s not so narrative or based around traditional storytelling. But I just can’t help it, because that is the way I imagine what happens. So it’s very much about imagining the gesture, how she walked, where she is, what’s her position, what kind of voice she hears and things like that every time. That was my writing process.

I realised that a lot of her personal experience is very much related to the story, to the character that I was developing

CB: Can you tell us something about the actress who plays Hanh? She’s amazing. How did you find her? How did you work with her? What did you tell her about this place so she could act so naturally in it?

CSC: She is amazing. It’s her first time acting in a film. Usually I work with non-actors. My casting process lasted more than a year. I had known her for a year before she agreed to be part of the project. Before lockdown, I used to go out on the street for scouting. I would visit different restaurants or other places to meet people. And then I would decide to visit just one place, one restaurant, for a few weeks, to really get to know the people there. They don’t know I’m actually looking for an actor, it’s more about becoming friends. The same happened with her. She was introduced to me by a very good friend of mine. She’s also Vietnamese. In fact, part of Hanh’s story is very much inspired by her own experience. So we got to know each other, but by that time lockdown had already started, so we chatted online, connected on Facebook. I didn’t tell her about the story, actually, I never showed her the script. But we spent a lot of time talking like friends, getting to know each other until she felt comfortable. Of course, I told her about my upbringing, my family background, everything. And then she also shared hers with me, and I realised that a lot of her personal experience is very much related to the story, to the character that I was developing. I then changed the script based on her experiences. When we started to film, I hadn’t had any rehearsals with her, nor with the little girl who plays her daughter. I brought them to the apartment only once, a few times a week when the little girl not going to school and she was not working, they just stayed around the apartment area, the staircase area. They were just hanging out to be close to each other and get familiar with the place. When I first brought her there, it turned out that she’d also been living in that very building previously. This was a bonus for me. So she was already quite familiar with that area. She has been living in Malaysia for more than 15 years and is fluent in the local languages. She can even speak better Malay than me. Because of her personal experience, which brought her and the little girl so close to the story, they knew what to do during the shooting process, where I would just tell them when this is the moment. I didn’t tell them anything about the story in the script. I would just talk to them separately: “Remember you told me about this experience of yours at this moment?” And then they would know how to make use of their own experience. I wasn’t trying to tell them to feel this or that. So they are the ones who ultimately made the film. Those who felt these characters, it’s all because of their wonderful contribution.

BW: The film is your debut feature, but I find it extremely mature, particularly in the way you are able to engage us in all those individual stories, your own, those of your performers, and create a completely unique world at the same time. It is a world very close to you, but you convey it in a way that makes it also close to us. What were the biggest challenges in putting your ideas into the film?

CSC: Sometimes I’m not sure whether is it okay to be so personal. I don’t mean that in terms of whether people can accept it or not or the pacing of the film. When I open up myself to share something too personal to someone, I’m not sure whether it becomes too much of a burden for the audience to listen to it. But I need this personal connection, I can’t make a film that I’m not familiar with, that I’ve not really experienced in some way. I just try to find a balance. Did I keep enough distance from it? I tried not to judge any of the characters harshly. But this is my personal opinion, of course. When I directed a scene or when I edited the film, sometimes I felt really strongly that I didn’t want to make Hanh look like a victim. Each time when I depicted her in a certain way in a certain edit, I discussed with my editor whether I felt it was too much, even the way she was sitting there, the way she was acting or expressing herself. I didn’t want to create any sort of prejudice with respect to her character. So that’s why I did it such a subtle way. Those were some of the challenges that I faced along the way.

The intention was not just to research the current state of the place, but also to get the people there to become familiar with me again

CB: Can you tell us how you actually worked in the apartment block, where a lot of people live. How long did you work on a scene? How did you communicate with all these people around?

CSC: I no longer live there, and when I developed the film, the intention was not just to research the current state of the place, but also to get the people there to become familiar with me again. My stepgrandmother is still living there, I was actually shooting next door to her house. She was quite welcoming, she even made soup for us during the shoot and everything, she just didn’t allow me to shoot in her apartment. So we visited the place and we also just needed to spend more time with the people there. Our team spent a lot of time there, hanging out in the restaurant area, which was the place to get to know everyone. Sometimes we also asked the actual residents to appear in the film, and they were actually quite friendly about that. It was a bit of a surprise when I told them that I wanted to make a film. They thought I wanted to make a commercial, because there are a lot of companies making TV commercials in the area. In terms of communication, it was quite okay. Due to the very nature of the place, with a lot of local people moving out, which means they then rent to migrants as well as having their own family and everything there, they are quite open to sharing, to allow their places to be used. That process of working on the location was quite smooth, I would say.

CB: I have to tell you something. I am an adoptive mother and I was very much touched by the moment when Hanh tries to be tender with the little girl, and it becomes obvious by the girl’s glance that this is not okay – she is not her daughter. Still, I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think I ever heard of a woman giving her child to another family in the same building because she herself cannot support the two of them. Is that a common thing to do there?

CSC: I can’t say it’s a common thing, but it was also inspired by a very good friend of mine. She’s Vietnamese. She has been helping taking care of my office space for many years. She speaks the local languages very fluently and everything. There are cases like this, not only in the Vietnamese community, but also from other ones, where the parents would do this, like my friend, for example. She planned to pay the local family to adopt her daughter so that the daughter could have better education in Malaysia. Sometimes they then don’t give up the child. It’s one of the ways to get a better education, a better lifestyle for a certain time. Others go for a proper adoption, some do it the non-conventional way. Local people get paid to do that and, of course, not everything is official.

You don’t think about where this person comes from or whether you are related or not

CB: So I wonder, what is the titular oasis? What does it mean? And what desert is this oasis situated in?

SC: Sometimes I have these very brief moments when I come across someone on the street, maybe a stranger or someone I don’t know very well, and I suddenly feel like this person is related to me. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like just a very quick moment during which you feel close to this person. You don’t think about where this person comes from or whether you are related or not. For me personally, that is like an oasis. But this oasis does not last long. It cannot be a long term thing with the kind of society and system that we have now. But it’s good enough, even though it’s just a short moment. For me, it’s like an “oasis of now”. It’s not forever, but it’s good to have, and I hope it endures for longer too.

BW: When I was asking about the challenges you faced making your film, you started by answering that you visited a lab with this script. I see this part of the film industry as becoming more dominant, it is supportive, but also a means of controlling creativity to a certain extent. Sometimes one can see that a film has run through several script labs and too many people have brought in their perspectives, telling you where and how the film will work and when it won’t. Even in this regard, your film is special, because it maintains the inner quality and subtlety and all the things you believe in and want to show until the very end. It was very daring of you to rely on the fact that it will all just come across. Do you want to comment on that?

CSC: Before I went to the script lab, I hadn’t researched what kind of film I needed to make before I made this film. I was really fresh, so I just opened up quickly. My script consultant at the SEAFIC script lab, Franz Rodenkirchen, was really great. I was so fortunate to meet him, because he gave me a chance. He taught me how to listen to myself and be confident about it. I remember the first time after the first feedback session with other mentors and other projects. And I felt very guilty about, because I felt that my script didn’t work with all the subtlety and things like that. It got out of hand sometimes. People will be confused, of course, but confusion is actually part of the theme of this film. That script lab actually helped me to be confident about it, to listen to what I wanted to express. So they didn’t force me into anything. I remember Franz and I had a conversation, and the conclusion was that I wanted to make a film about feelings, share certain feelings more than the facts. Yeah, that was like a trigger that I would focus on that, although I was very new and still had my doubts. Sometimes I wondered whether it was too abstract at a certain point or too subtle. But when I showed too much, it gave away what I intended to do. I felt guilty sometimes, but I think it’s better to feel guilty than to put such so-called prejudices or judgements onto a certain character. I know sometimes we get frustrated when we don’t get to see everything. But I’m very curious to know how we make certain judgments, form certain opinions, when we only know part of the whole thing. I keep reminding myself that. It’s not easy. That’s why I feel very grateful to anyone who’s willing to watch the film. I know it’s not easy, but that is how I feel. That is how Hanh felt. I just try to be truthful and honest about that feeling. It’s not comfortable. It’s not something that easy to take in. Did I answer your question?

BW: Absolutely! We take it as our own lesson from you, and as our own mission to take up that same humble attitude. It’s not just because of this that the film works for me as a central film of our entire selection.

CB: It is so impressive how you dared to leave behind this uncertainty and put all your energy into making Hanh more and more complex in her surroundings. I was just following her, and she’s a real star. Your film is more like a sculpture I’m able to explore. So that’s really very beautiful. Thank you very much for the film and the interview.

CSC: Thank you.


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