Interview with Felicia Liu by Julia Robinson: What is Freedom?

Felicia Liu Fangling is a Singaporean film maker debuting her recent short film, Võõrastetuba (Guest Room) that she wrote and directed in Estonia. She discloses how making this film changed the way she experiences freedom and how she uses film to give voice to those who are voiceless.

What motivated you to film animals in captivity?

When I was younger, in Singapore, I attended a conference about Dolphins in captivity and the disastrous, horrible conditions that they have to live in. Dolphins are thought to be more intelligent than humans – they have a language that we cannot decipher and they can also communicate telepathically. In that same conference I met a person from the crew who filmed Black Fish a movie which changed my own life. Black Fish brought light to something that I didn’t know about – killer whales in captivity. Due to this film there was an outcry from the public against the whaling industry and the industry suffered and declined. It inspired me to impact people with film.

My first film Blue Heist, was a precursor for Võõrastetuba which dealt with the captivity of dolphins. Despite it being an amateur production it had a really good response, which motivated me to write and direct Võõrastetuba. (See the trailer.)

Up until now all of your work has involved animals in capture. What is it that draws to you this over other humanitarian fields or issues that also need attention?

What draws me in is that animals don’t have a voice. Growing up I didn’t feel as if I did either. I was a shy kid, the quiet one in the corner but I could relate with animals – they were a huge source of comfort for me. I felt like I could communicate empathically with them and through eye contact see the emotions inside of them. Animals are so similar to humans! Especially chimps, ohh my god, and the horrible things that we subject these living beings to without any real consciousness on our behalf! We don’t stop to listen and the animals have no voice. We put them in vile situations that are just not right, only because it’s hidden from our world.

So one of my aims in making films is to motivate humans to have greater feeling capacity towards animals.

After making the film, on the day of completion, you ran happily through the snow to your car, slipped and broke a leg. You then had to be in bed for several weeks, also a ‘captive’ of bodily limitations. Do you feel that is a simply coincidence or a synchronous event? It is amazingly similar!

I’ve not thought about it like that, but yes, now that you say it, I was just like the protagonist: stuck in bed, totally reliant on others for food, drink, even to go to the toilet.

What did you learn from that experience in relation to the film?

I remember the feeling of stepping out of the door for the first time. The feeling of fresh air. I could step to the right or to the left – I had freedom! By freedom I mean in the most basic sense of being able to step out of the house without limitations.

Freedom from what?

Ohh that’s a good question! Let me think.

From repetition. Yes that’s it. From the repetition of my brain, from all those thoughts that after a while become really circular, from the repetitions of seeing the same things day in day out, the same curtains, the same walls. Even meditation became stuck. And the same bad smells. Colours seemed so dull. I would sit at the window just to see outside. And freedom from boredom, utterly soul destroying boredom.

How did it feel to have been free and then to be so incapacitated?

It was really hard. I felt so impotent. I couldn’t do anything without help from my flatmate and friends. I couldn’t eat, or drink, or even go to the bathroom by myself. My sense of sovereignty completely disappeared. I was captive to my circumstances and it got me down. I just wanted to be able to move, to get out, to have the life I was used to living.

The relationships that I had started to shift in my mind too. Like, were these people here for me because they want to be here for me or because, in a sense, the situation of a broken leg forces them to be here with me? And the dynamics changed my way of relating, and I think for the others too. The relationships weren’t natural anymore but instead based on circumstances that none of us could get away from: I mean, as much as we all wanted, no one could make my broken leg not be broken.

So my physical limitation created limitations in my emotional world. It was a little harder, a little tenser here and there as I could sense people were doing things for me that they didn’t necessarily want to do. We all sort of hit limitations at some point.

I guess we all have limitations that we aren’t aware of until we are forced to see them. It’s hard to deal with them even knowing that they may change. But in your film, from the chimps’ point of view it’s impossible to get through those metal bars. They don’t have much of a chance of changing their conditions…

You know I tried to portray that the feeling of misery comes with the feeling of loss. The thing to realise is that we never had anything. If it is all that we know, do we suffer as much as when we can imagine something more?

When I broke my leg I suffered over the ideas that the days were lovely and sunny and everything I would do if I didn’t have a broken leg. If I had gotten to do all those things, would I have felt what I was imagining I would feel?

The little girl who was born in the cage is quite happy, and the adults, well they are depressed for so many reasons like losing their kid and being boxed in with each other. They are tormented by knowing that there is something outside, but they are not blaming the system, because that’s just the way it is, they never thought things could be different.

If animals don’t know any better, born into miserable conditions, are they unhappy? Do we project onto them the idea of being depressed? But it still leaves the question, is it moral for us to treat animals so badly even if they have no idea of how badly they are being treated? And even if they are conscious of what we are doing to them they have no voice to do anything about it, what rights do we have over them? What are our morals towards other beings and how does that reflect we way we treat each other as humans?

Do you see yourself in the film?

You know I’ve thought about that. Of course when I was writing I was just expressing what was coming up, trying to make a story and then getting it to fit together and while we were filming there wasn’t a lot of time to be reflecting on life, it was more about sorting out technological issues and wrapping it up.

But afterwards while I was lying in bed with the leg, I realised quite a few things. My favourite part of the film is when they are playing music with the water in the wine glasses. While I was at Film School one afternoon my flatmate showed me how to play the glasses. You know I honestly didn’t know that was possible! It was like a door opening into new possibilities. The sound is so beautiful.

The other thing that crept in is the drawing that Mia does of the pig. I drew that same pig all of my childhood. It was me and my friends’ thing to do in class instead of listening to the teacher.

Did you like school?

Erm, seriously? No I didn’t. It was so strict. We had to wear a uniform. The skirt had to go down to the knee, the socks never below the ankle. If we had short hair it shouldn’t touch the collar of our shirts, if it was long it had to be tied up. No dye, absolutely no colour in our hair. Of course, I understood the importance of learning discipline through basic things like appearance and all, but for me it was like another cage!

Childhood in a cage…

Yeah, and you know, when I started to think more about it, I realised that the main action in the film is the interaction of Mia with a little girl who wants Mia to be her mother. The little girl wants a reunion with her missing mom and then is forced to go away – it’s all fake.

Often big things happen in families that are just too hard for little people to deal with by themselves, and yet they are ‘protected’ from that ‘savage reality outside’ by covering it all up as if nothing had happened at all. Maybe the outside isn’t so savage in those jungles of being alive and instead we cage ourselves in to something far worse: silence.

So I guess this film could also be about escaping from the jail of unvoiced feeling.

How do you find a voice for childhood feelings now as an adult?

I do a silent meditation called Vipassana. It has really helped. Each time I do a ten-day sit I feel it heals me more and more. I mean when I was a kid I knew what the ‘healthy response’ was. I was good at hiding. It was like my emotions were frozen. Emotions were to be avoided at all cost! And Vipassana allows me to feel all that I’ve stored away in there. It comes up and if I let it, if I let go, it comes up and goes out. It gives me space to feel something else, something new. Actually it gives me space to just not feel, or think, but just be.

I’ve also found my voice through film. I’ve done it for all that real stuff that comes up that people just can’t talk about, for whatever reasons, all those covered over emotional non-expressions. Film is a way to contact with the feelings in a safer environment in a way that ‘isn’t real’ and yet really is.

Click to see the trailer.


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