Tijana Mamula - 'The Writing Box' Director Q&A
Visability Film Festival caught up with our VFF 'Best Director' award winner for this year, Tijana Mamula, to hear more about her ambitious short, 'The Writing Box'
VFF: Joe is doing a PHD in educational psychology, whilst Sam did his undergraduate dissertation on children’s cinema. So, both co-directors were thrilled to see such an outstanding performance from Margot Orr. What was working with such a talented young actress like?
TM: It was amazing. While Margot is active in the drama department at her school, she has never acted professionally and this is her first film project, so I was really blown away not only by her performance but also by her maturity and professionalism on set. She’s just really intellectually precocious, but also deeply empathetic and a great listener. I’ve known Margot since she was born – she is the daughter of my close friend Natalie Di Giorgio, who also came on to co-produce the India portion of the film after Margot agreed to be in it – and we’ve always had a great sort of “family friends” relationship, so it was beautiful to solidify that on set and take it into a more collaborative direction. Margot is also an avid reader, and though she’s a lovely, compassionate, anti-Grace sort of person in general, she very much identified with that readerly, imaginative side of Grace’s character. And also, I would say, with the emotions underlying some of her actions, though never the behaviour itself. In fact, one of the first things that struck me about Margot was how quickly she understood the story and the character. I took the script over one afternoon and she and Natalie read it right then and there, and then summed it up for Margot’s little brothers. When one of them asked, “so, is Grace the bad guy?” Margot answered, “Well, there’s not really a bad guy… She’s more like a sad guy.” I just loved that. And honestly was pretty much ready to cast her without an audition! But we did do the audition, with the scene of the night-time argument between her and Isabelle. Grace gets really angry at the end, and it was crucial for me to find an actress who could properly express that sort of pent-up rage. And Margot nailed it right off the bat. So, although to some extent I was surprised to see just how naturalistic and intuitive and nuanced her performance was overall, I never had any doubt that she would be able to convey the complexity of Grace’s emotional and psychological states.
VFF: There’s some wonderfully restrained use of animation mid-way through the piece, with the Tiger’s Eye. It really makes a marked difference to the rest of the film, why was this image, done in this way, so integral?
TM: The tiger’s eye was actually stock footage! Graded of course to match the rest of the scene and slowed down just slightly. Originally, I wanted to have this whole CGI sequence where you fully see a tiger sleeping next to Miss Starch and then waking up and looking into the fire, etc. Obviously extremely expensive and difficult to pull off properly. After toying with the idea of a stuffed tiger, we decided to go for a faux tiger skin – which we washed and scrubbed and tried to destroy with hairspray so it would look less synthetic – draped over a cushion and filmed in slow motion, with my partner/AD moving the cushion to simulate breathing. Paired with the stock footage of the eye. Which I’m glad you noticed, because it was a serendipitous find that shifted the way the scene was conceived. For example, I’m not sure I would have gone quite that close if I’d directed that shot myself, and I would likely have kept everything naturalistic – partly because I’m a big fan of dream sequences that don’t “look” like dream sequences; that sort of Lynch or Buñuel approach to the unconscious. But when I found that extreme close-up it felt perfect – kind of hyperrealistic, and at once really intimate and larger-than-life, in a way that loudly echoes Miss Starch’s line, in the first half, about the tiger being alive (which is one of the things I was trying to achieve with this scene from the start), but also, in the edit, makes an almost direct connection to Grace’s dreaming mind. And so begs the question: who is the tiger? In any case, what was integral was having a sequence in which we fully transition into Grace’s mind, and which takes us further into this feeling that the lines between her reality and her imagination are starting to blur. Not that the events depicted are ever not happening – for me, the story 100% takes place as told, though I very much welcome different interpretations – but I wanted it to feel like Grace herself can’t quite make sense of what’s happening to her anymore.
VFF: The film feels at once like a loving ode, and a ruthless deconstruction of colonial children’s literature, how important do you think it is for artists to re-imagine these historic cultural spaces?
TM: I think it’s really important to reflect critically on everything we read, and that includes the classics we read as children. And I think you’re right, there is a dichotomy there, because there’s an emotional relationship to these works that’s really difficult, if not impossible, to excise from your memory, but there’s also a responsibility that we have as adults to bring our knowledge to bear on certain reading experiences in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily be equipped to do as children. In a nutshell, I think that continuing to love Frances Hodgson Burnett (or whichever writer shaped one’s childhood), is completely natural and perhaps in many instances inevitable, but that affective tie doesn’t exempt you from having to be critically aware of the colonial narrative that her books propagate, and of the erasure of a much darker colonial history that they enact – and of your own role as reader in enabling the perpetuation of various lies and mythologies. Indeed, if there’s one thing that’s becoming really clear at the moment, though it should have been clear to everyone long ago, it’s that you can’t represent past works without reading them critically – by which I mean, without reading them in relation to their historical and political contexts. And while this has long been the purview of professional scholars and critics, it’s now fully extended to the producers of cultural objects. I mean, it’s not enough for someone or even many people to write articles on colonialism in F. H. Burnett; that reflection has to be there in any adaptation of her work. Then also, as both a filmmaker and an educator, I’m very invested in literacy and I believe that deconstructing art works which stem from and reflect deeply problematic histories is a productive and necessary political (and pedagogic) strategy. All of that said, the critical deconstruction of Burnett is already there in Geraldine McCaughrean’s story: I just made it more explicit, and sort of centred it around this question of Grace’s mind as a filter for the works.
VFF: Your tagline - “a portrait of the artist as a horrible little girl” - is a humorous touch. Can you talk to us a bit more about Grace’s ‘artistry’?
TM: All the bits relating to Grace’s proclivity for art were things I added to the original story: her readings, the cinema excursions, the piano playing, the theremin, the poetry. And the film is very much a reflection on the idea of “uncreative writing” and techniques of appropriation, collage, conceptual poetry, postproduction, etc. For me, when Grace gets up and recites Blake’s poem and then says it’s hers, she’s only partly lying. I mean, she’s lying to the extent that she knows she didn’t technically write it, but she’s also not lying because she understands the poem in a way nobody else can, and so she’s appropriated it and it is hers. She didn’t write it but she might as well have. It’s a part of her, it means something specific in her interpretation that it doesn’t in anyone else’s – I suppose that’s obvious; more precisely, the poem evokes things in her mind and so literally lives in her imagination and in everything that this imagination projects outwards in a way that it doesn’t elsewhere. In all of those ways, she is its author, just as she is the author of A Little Princess, and its movie version, and the Schumann pieces, and the Tchaikovsky on the theremin. And of course, this is also true for me and my reading of McCaughrean’s story and of Burnett’s books (both through McCaughrean and independently of her), and all the other artistic references that flowed into this film. So yes, in a way the “portrait of the artist as a horrible little girl” is intentionally humorous, but – like Grace’s claim to authorship of “The Tyger” – it’s also true. The Writing Box is effectively an expressionistic depiction of how, as a young girl, I arrived at wanting to make films, which was precisely by realising that these myriad sources and stories and images, which lived in my imagination, were distillable into some kind of a coherent or at least recognisable whole that could be externalised in reality, through cinema; that could, in other words, live and be perceivable outside of my mind, by way of an audiovisual representation that would also be available to other people and could constitute a shared experience. The qualifier “horrible” links back to your previous question and is, I suppose, not just descriptive of Grace’s character but also an acknowledgement of the extent to which my artistic education was – and the education of so many children continues to be – structurally, systemically, tied up in white supremacist discourse. Unlearning that discourse is, like I was saying earlier, also dependant on returning to many children’s classics in order to critically reread and deconstruct them.
Tijana Mamula - Director