Culture, Screen

Nele Wohlatz: learning to say “I” in broken Spanish

Her new film “The future perfect” gets inside the life of a Chinese woman creating a new identity as she settles in Buenos Aires. As a foreigner herself, Nele felt unable to direct a film with Spanish-speaking actors. She shows the world as an immigrant struggling with language.


Nele Wohlatz

Graham Douglas


Xiaobin, the protagonist of the film is a young Chinese woman who has settled in Buenos Aires, and although she has contacts in the Chinese community, she doesn’t want to remain like those women who are unable to speak Spanish years later, confined inside the walls of a family business. For her, emigration is the opportunity to progress and create a new life, away from the limitations of her low social class in China.

For Nele, the immigrant experience had also been challenging, and she understood that the changes required are deep-seated. Being able to move around and develop friendships is only the surface, below which may be feelings of imprisonment, helplessness, loneliness, and loss of identity.

When Xiaobin had the idea for the film, even after 4 years in Buenos Aires the subtleties of the Spanish language were still a minefield: her creative response was to start from the position of the immigrant, and make the camera look and listen through her senses, as the world gradually becomes less fragmented and provides meanings and memories.

The Prisma spoke to Nele, after the showing of “The future perfect”, at the Lisbon and Estoril Film Festival this month.

Since then the film has won the New Auteurs Grand Jury Award at the American Film Institute festival in Los Angeles.

nele-y-pelicula7The colours in the film are very washed out until near the end, when Xiaobin begins to imagine a future, the camera moves faster and the colours are intense.

The idea was to use the camera to do the same as in the dialogues. So at the beginning she is starting from zero, when she arrives in Argentina. When you first come to a place everything is abstract because you don’t share any history, you don’t recognise the city’s landmarks. So it is a bit like an empty abstract space, not a city in its typical expression, and this is why at the beginning the scenes are very short and mostly a single shot, with no movement. She has no dialogue, no possibility to speak with people.

Then as she improves her Spanish, there are dialogues, first from the textbook, and then longer, and the camera starts to move more and the scenes become longer. So it is as if the camera is doing the same as we do when we are building a new identity. The whole film is about that, and having to start from zero.

nele-y-pelicula6When you film in 2K, the colour is washed out, and normally you correct it in the post-editing, but I liked it because I wanted to reduce the visual information in the same way that the dialogues are reduced to what Xiaobin is learning in her Spanish book.

I shot the film on just a few locations that are repeated the whole time: the places that an immigrant uses to fulfil their basic needs like sleeping, eating, learning the new language, school, house, supermarket, and restaurant.

We looked for visually reduced locations to try to represent the idea of a school rather than a school itself – which is impossible, but we tried to leave just the essential elements, the way a child says “sky” “house”, and these washed-out colours helped with that.

In many locations, there were very few people visible. Do you feel that modern life is like that for everyone nowadays, spectators on a passing scene?

nele-y-pelicula5We tried to film the city from her perspective, and Xiaobin is lonely, not to film Buenos Aires, as someone from there would have done. So at the beginning you only see fragments of other people, no faces. It’s all about her and her solitude. In China, she is from a social class which has no chance of progressing, but suddenly in another city Xiaobin has possibilities. Leaving China was what mattered.

The movement of immigrants towards cities is interesting, in this case the Chinese in Buenos Aires, but my starting point was a film about a foreigner in a new city and a new language.

I felt handicapped, because there are so many subtle things in the Spanish language that I don’t catch, and I couldn’t direct something with native Spanish speakers. So I decided to film from the perspective of another foreign woman.

I was quite touched by the scene in which Xiaobin and Vijay are getting to know each other, and they are trying to make a relationship just using stock phrases from books.

nele-y-pelicula4The Chinese and Indian cultures are quite unknown to me, where marriages are arranged, for example. So I really didn’t get the point of their relationship, and I am not into making films that explain everything. I wanted to stress elements that were important for her, like being intimate with another foreigner, who is not Chinese, because she wants to break away from her past, to become someone, a full person, as a foreigner in Argentina. So it was logical that she would meet someone equally isolated by language, from a different culture.

Xiaobin was wearing this T-shirt with the name Kitten throughout the film, and then a cat appears at the end, which she catches in a trap.

At one point in the film students are rehearsing texts and another Chinese girl said she wanted a cat for company, and was trying to trap one of the strays in the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. I understand this as I got a cat for similar reasons and wanted to include it, but Xiaobin is so pragmatic. She said: “No, I don’t need a cat, I have to look after myself”. The cat illustrates how Xiaobin and I are very different in the ways we handled building a new home as foreigners.

nele-y-pelicula3I was very excited by the chance to work with someone I shared a lot with during the whole process, yet who is so different that I can only catch a little of her thinking.

This dynamic of us being foreigners to each other, yet sharing our condition of being foreigners in Argentina, and getting close through making the film, was fascinating.

So the cat was always there, and then a film like this has to have an open ending, it is past, present and future, and then her life continues. And the kitten story was funny. We had a lot of reality coming into our shooting. It was the same T-shirt Xiaobin wears in an interview before we began filming.

To connect her to her beginning, I asked her to wear the same T-shirt when she was talking about the future, to repeat the shot with a wider view. Then suddenly the shirt said Kitten! I had forgotten, because we’d only filmed the top part which is white and her white face and black hair.

nele-y-pelicula8When you can’t speak the language it makes you feel helpless like a child. Do you identify with Xiaobin or do you see her reacting differently to yourself?

Language is an essential part of our identity. What you are able to say triggers what you can think – which comes from the philosophy of Wittgenstein.

This is where I share my experiences with Xiaobin, but our new daily-life language was Spanish, and during the shooting I understood that by making this film we were suddenly creating sense within our new language, even speaking with errors, and the whole process was about appropriating our new language. I realised that we were doing an art-piece or a film, whatever you want to call it, in a badly spoken language, but still making sense – beauty or poetry. This is why I was so happy making this film. When I told Xiaobin, she said “yes, that’s true”. Xiaobin understood this idea very quickly.

(Photos from Nele Wohlatz )

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One Comment

  1. Maria Estrela

    I wish i had seen this film when it was screened in Lisbon! Through Graham’s interesting interview i can
    imagine how exciting this film must be.

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