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“Once you leave you can never go back to who you were as a child” - Im Gespräch mit der Regisseurin Venice Atienza von “Last Days At Sea”

Am Mittwochvormittag durfte ich mit der philippinischen Regisseurin Venice Atienza über Zoom sprechen, deren Dokumentarfilm “Last Days at Sea” im diesjährigen Berlinaleprogramm gezeigt wird. Es entspann sich ein inspirierendes Gespräch über ihre empatische Art, Filme zu drehen und was es heißt, sich auf der Leinwand als Regisseurin vulnerabel zu zeigen.


fGR: Would you like to introduce yourself shortly?
My name is Venice Atienza. I initially studied cinema, but before that I actually wanted to be a chef. One day, when I was 16 or 17 years old, I was watching a Korean drama and I asked my mother: “What job makes people feel things?” and she replied by asking me “Why don’t you become a film maker?”. After applying for the second time I finally got into film school.
I really always knew I wanted to make documentaries but did not know how. A friend of mine then told me about the project Doc Nomads which I got accepted at. That was the first time I saw a bit more experimental documentaries. Slowly, I realised and learned how to do this job of making people feel things by making documentaries.

How did this documentary come along?
After finishing university I worked with a production company which used to do short documentaries for non-government organisations (NGO’s). One of those NGO’s asked us to make documentaries about places on the Philippines that are good at surviving hard storms and Karihatag [where the documentary is set] was one these places. Reyboy is the son of the village leader, which was the place we were staying at. Reyboy was always there with his cousins and took us swimming in the ocean in the afternoon. He told me this story about the giant fish that lives in the sea and that the fishers don’t catch because they believe it belongs to the ocean.
At the beginning I was really curious about these legends and how they were part of children’s lives, so I was thinking I could make a film about this myth. But then I got accepted for Doc Nomads, so I postponed this and returned two years later to see whether Reyboy still believed in the fish. I then learned that he was preparing for his exam to study in the city. That was when I felt that I would not make the film about the fish but rather wanted to spend time with Reyboy. At that time I did not know which direction the film would take. I just wanted to make a short film about the last days of summer with him.
Then there was one day when we talked about how he felt about leaving and that’s when I decided to just stay and see where it was going.

Did you then already have a script in mind?
No. There was something about Reyboy that touched me from the beginning, but for a long time I could not really grasp what it was. Until one day I came across footage (which was not part of the film) where Reyboy told me that he was afraid because of the distance. Not because of the distance of space but because of the distance of time. He said, once you leave you can never go back to who you were as a child. I was moved by it and made it the guiding thought of the documentary that I was trying to remember.

Your filming approach is really empathic, very intimate. Do you feel like this is maybe more common in female directors?
I actually have not seen so many films that are done in this way. However, now that you ask me I feel like all the film makers that influenced me, that touched me, were female. I never thought about it that way but I feel like all these film makers that manage to show what is personal while at the same time giving a window to a wider world were all female.
In Doc Nomads we had two male film makers who also made their films in this way. One of those two colleagues made a film of a Portuguese woman and himself climbing up a long staircase together while trying to communicate without sharing the same language. This is where I realised that you as a film maker can also be part of the film, that you are allowed to also make mistakes and allow yourself to open yourself up to the one who is in front with you and who you are filming with. I’m generally really moved by how film makers manage to strike a balance between themselves and the person they are portraying. Managing to capture this intimacy might also be due to a certain vulnerability. Because for example, in the Philippines for a long time men were not allowed to show any sign of perceived weakness. My producer Fan Wu always tells me “We only make and we only see who we are. What you see in the world is somehow existing inside of you.” So if you’ve been taught to not show any kind of weakness you stick to that.
What did you learn about yourself and your way of film making in the progress of making this film?
In the beginning I really did not like to portray myself in the film. It took us 1 1/2 years to edit the film and in this time I needed to grow up to become the film maker I needed to be. It is very difficult to be vulnerable and to say what it is that actually touched you by encountering someone. If you look at the first versions of the film you can see that I completely did not have a voice. The voiceover did not exist. Over time I realised that if I really wanted to show Reyboy as a person it is important to show how we relate to each other.
It was really hard to be open and vulnerable and I honestly do not know if I can do it again. I really took a long time to be ready to talk about my grandmother or tell the audience that at some point I stopped dreaming. I also took a long time to recognise that myself.
I was reading about “vulnerable anthropology” from Ruth Behar, and she said something that really touched me: “Sometimes as an adult you loose the vocabulary that you had as a child. At the same time when you were a child you did not really understand everything that is happening to you.” And I felt like I remembered a lot of things of my childhood when I was spending time with Reyboy. And that there are also things I do not have words for anymore. So, I felt like this film could bridge this.

How do you feel now that the film is out here in the open?
I started to feel very sad when we finished editing the film. Of course I was happy that it was displayed at the Berlinale but at the same time I was sad because I was afraid that I would never feel so touched by something again. We worked at this for three years and I felt I grew up as a person while doing that. It was really great and really hard. I don’t know if this happens twice in your life. Then I was afraid that I was not able to be as moved by anything again. But of course this is just me having a hard time saying goodbye.
But then, when it is no longer in your hands and you give it to the audience, I had to learn how to give up control. How to say “This is what I experienced with Reyboy, I hope you see it too”. And this letting go was really one of the hardest aspects.
But then at the same time I am super happy and grateful that other people get to experience what I experienced. And that even though we do not speak the same language or do not live in the same place we can be touched by the same things somehow.

What is the reception you got for the film so far?
The film is currently being shown at different festivals, right now there is one in New Zealand.
There were things I was worried people would not understand like the feeling of childhood fleeting and not returning. Or some things I just really like, like watching trees or the stars with Reyboy - which are things I just do not know if the audience appreciates them as well. But people have written to me and they said that it reminded them of something they had forgotten. One Polish person wrote me and said that it reminded him of his childhood days. For me, that’s enough, to make someone remember something they have forgotten.
Naturally, it is not always perfect. I also get some questions about why nothing happens. However, this is what I intended to do. In life you also do not always feel like something happens and when you look back it was something important but when you were living it it wasn’t. So I was hoping that we could pay attention to things that are not that loud.
When we were editing the film there was this huge temptation to cut it in a way that something happens, to suggest big things, but in the end I think it is important to give space. It is not always this giant hero’s journey and you fight someone in the end and win. Sometimes it really is about time and how it passes.

Und mit diesen Worten verabschiedeten wir uns.
19. Juni 2021, Sarah Gosten

© Venice Atienza

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