Indonesian director Kamila Andini discusses her abstract and fantastic sophomore feature The Seen and Unseen, holism, and the thrill of the unknown.
Kamila Andini’s second feature, The Seen and Unseen, shown in the platform section at TIFF ‘17, stood out as one of the more abstract and fantastic works outside of the Wavelengths section of the festival. Shot in the dreamlike Indonesian countryside, the film follows 10 year-old Tantri (Ni Kadek Thaly Titi Kasih) as she tries to deal with the impending death of her twin brother Tantra (Ida Bagus Putu Radithya Mahijasena).
Bedridden and largely unresponsive, Tantra cannot interact with his sister — an absence she feels so deeply that she gradually starts ‘communicating’ with him through her imagination and her dreams. The film’s clear distinction between reality and fantasy progressively disappears until it loses all relevance. The viewer gets lost in the hypnotic and odd costumed dances and reveries that Tantri imagines.
The Seen and Unseen is a film about grief that is affecting not in a cheap and sentimental way, but rather through unsettling and evocative images that directly touch the soul.
Seventh Row talked to Kamila Andini about holism, realism, and the thrill of the unknown.
Seventh Row (7R): Which idea came to you first: the twins or the dreams?
Kamila Andini: The twins came first. For the story, it was a long process to get there. I was questioning myself a lot, then I would find something and put it in the story, then process all that again, then find something else and add it as well…
It started from a desire to really say who I am as an Indonesian. We are very holistic people and I wanted to portray this vision of the world. The people from the East come with beliefs in the magical and mystical.
In Bali, where the film is set, there is a belief called “Sekala Niskala” which means “the seen and unseen.” It is about a dualism, a balance in the world: every person should believe in what they see, but also in what they don’t see. This concept really intrigued me as a creator at the time, when I first started working on this project. I wanted to play around with those words ‘the seen and unseen.’ So I refer to this dualism with the twins: a sister and a brother, one is sick and the other is healthy, and all these sets of opposites.'It is a dualism: every person should believe in what they see, but also in what they don’t see.'Click To Tweet
Regarding the idea of the dream, I was wondering “how do you explain holism to people who don’t know it?” And the dynamic between dream and reality is a good way to connect the audience to that concept.
7R: In the film, at times there are no clear demarcations between dream and reality. It isn’t exactly confusing, but it creates this feeling where we’re not sure what we’re looking at. How did you decide when to make it clear and when not to?
Kamila Andini: In the process of making this movie, this was actually my big question: what is realism for me? In my country, because of our holistic beliefs, realism is surrealism!'In my country, because of our holistic beliefs, realism is surrealism!' - Kamila Andini Click To Tweet
7R: Why did you choose to focus on children?
Kamila Andini: My first film was also about children. When I first wrote The Seen and Unseen in 2012, I was still interested in the world of children. I think it’s because I love to question everything, as I am still finding out who I am and what kind of cinema I want to make. I want to make films from the point of view of children because I feel a real affinity with their sense of questioning and curiosity.
7R: It feels like cinema would be the perfect outlet to express how films and reality are the same. It’s a great way to make dreams become reality.
Kamila Andini: Yes. We had many discussions about how to portray the dream. But my approach is actually very organic. If I see something that I feel should be in the film, I just put it in. During the shooting, I work mainly on intuition. We plan a lot. With the team, we try to have something designed for the dream sequences. But planning just isn’t what this film is about. This film is about capturing something from reality and seeing it from a different perspective, to make it something else.
7R: The dream sequences in the film are really striking. There are no special effects or CGI involved; it’s more like magical realism. How did you create those sequences?
Kamila Andini: I worked with the cinematographer before, so she already knew what kind of approach I was looking for. We were very responsive to each other because the shooting was really intense: we shot in 12 days.
Both of us have a background in documentary filmmaking. It helped doing what mattered the most to me, which was capturing the moments that occurred during the shooting. But things like the dance that the two children do in the film, I prepared them in advance. The script, too, I made sure that it was somewhat disturbing and odd. My goal was to make the everyday life disturbing, less familiar, more magical.'My goal was to make the everyday life disturbing, less familiar, more magical.' - Kamila AndiniClick To Tweet
7R: Why did you decide to shoot in the countryside? You live in Jakarta, the country’s capital. Are you familiar with the rural part of Indonesia?
Kamila Andini: I like exploring places that I don’t really know, because I love doing research. I love to have that feeling of distance with a place and to see it from a perspective different from that of the people who live there. That’s why I work a lot in the countryside, for my previous films, as well.
7R: Did you ever consider making films in another country that you don’t know?
Kamila Andini: Of course! It’s always interesting to feel strange like that. Strange but in a good way – the positive feeling of finding something new.
7R: How did you work with the young children? Are they actors?
Kamila Andini: They are non-actors, actually. I let them improvise: I treat my non-professional actors like my second writers. I discuss the script with them a lot. I ask them if they’d feel comfortable doing a scene, or if the dialogue is realistic. That’s why casting is the hardest part, because I have to find the right cast for me to have that partnership with. I always tell them that I want them to be themselves. I just add a story to their characters.'I treat my non-professional actors like my second writers.' - Kamila AndiniClick To Tweet
These two kids were amazing, especially the girl who plays Tantri. She has a much slower tempo than me. Usually when I work with kids, I have to tell them to slow down. But this girl, she’s even slower than me! The film has that slow pace because she is like that. She walks like that. She talks like that. It’s a holistic approach. I wanted to let her guide the film that way.