Tiger Talk #1 - Shireen Seno

All her life Shireen Seno (1983) wondered what it would have been like if she hadn’t grown up in Japan but in the Philippines. In Nervous Translation she tries to imagine just that. We discuss the Philippines, life in between cultures and inevitably: shoes.

The Philippines. A country engraved in the memories of the children of the seventies, thanks to the shoes of Imelda Marcos. Three thousand pairs the First Lady of the Philippines had and she was even mentioned on Dutch children television. The archipelago was all over the news in the eighties, mostly because of the extravagant lifestyle of the Marcos family.

Today, some three decades later, Shireen Seno made a film in the neighbourhood Marikana in the capital Manila. “Everyone in this neighbourhood used to work in the shoe factories. You could say Imelda’s shoes were made here”, Seno says laughing.

The mother of Yael, the eight-year-old main character, also works there. The film takes place in the year 1988, right after the fall of president and kleptocrat Marcos. The big, historical events in the Philippines are never explicitly shown in this movie, they are only present in the background. 

The shoes of Imelda Marcos were made here.” – Shireen Seno

Shining shoes
For Seno, historical events have always been at a distance. “I was born in Japan and I grew up there. My mother worked in an international school. We only visited the Philippines in order to visit our grandparents. I could feel there was a lot going on, but I did not quite understand it.

Seno was raised strictly Western, while growing up in the land of the rising sun. Her parents spoke English with their children. They wanted them to do well. “Well, for them that meant high grades in school, going to college in the United States, getting the American nationality and a good job”, Seno explains. There was quite some pressure. Our grades had to be high, we had to exceed our parents.”

As a result, the shy girl Shireen Seno became a perfectionist. In Nervous Translation, main character Yael is her mirror image. “She’s also a perfectionist. She’s very precise when she cleans her shoes and soles. Maybe you wonder: who does that? But it’s not a wild fantasy. I did that too when I was young.”

“The Philippines had a somewhat strange, distant position in our lives. We did not talk about the past. Instead of talking, life was about consuming, it was very American.” And it stayed American when Seno went to study in Canada and her sisters attended colleges in the United States.  

That Seno eventually did end up in the Philippines was thanks to love and Filipino film director John Torres. His film Years When I Was a Child Outside was nominated for a Tiger Award in 2008 and since that moment they have been working together. John will be at this year’s IFFR, Seno unfortunately cannot attend, because she’s expecting their first baby in March. 

  • Still: Nervous Translation

  • Still: Nervous Translation

  • Still: Nervous Translation

Broken family
Nervous Translation tries to catch the atmosphere of the Philippines in the eighties. What would it have been like if Seno and her parents would not have gone to Japan? What if they had stayed in the Philippines? “We were with three girls at home, now my whole family lives in the USA, but we remain close. That’s why Yael has some traits of myself and of both my sisters.” 

The eight-year-old Yael spends most of her time home alone. Her mother works long days in the factory while her father works in the Middle East. He’s only present through his voice on the audio cassette tapes he sends home and Yael listens to her father all the time. It seems a wild fantasy, but the absence of a family member is part of daily life in the Philippines.

“Since the eighties the Filipino government has a special program for ‘Overseas Filipino workers’, fellow citizens who work abroad”, explains Seno. “The men often work in construction, the women are often housekeepers or they work in health care. According to the government they are the engines of our economy. They are being praised like heroes. In my film I show the downside of this policy: Yael is raised in a broken family. There are many of them out here.”    

Big trauma
The independent film industry is growing in the Philippines; there is more local money. It’s mostly media companies that invest in movies. “I wonder if this is a good thing. On the one hand it is, since more films can be produced. On the other hand those companies will have the rights, so the rights will not belong to the makers.”

The films are being made, but there’s a lack of avant-garde movie theatres showing the independent films. “Most theatres are located in shopping malls and they only show box office hits”, says Seno. “Fortunately there are more and more small theatres in Manila showing exciting films. Outside of Manila there’s almost nothing.”

The former presidential family Marcos is a regular subject in Filipino movies. Their shadow is still present in the country. Seno: “Despite the violence in that time, the cult around Marcos continues just like before. Recently his son almost became vice president. The current president is actually rewriting the history of the dictator. He wants to place him between our national heroes. The terror is being hidden very well, even I have almost been brainwashed. The fact that we tend to forget so quickly about our past, means our trauma is big.” 

Photo in header: By: Sophie van Leeuwen & Pieter-Bas van Wiechen