Shireen Seno in Conversation

Robbie Handcock, curator of the exhibition The Inner Lives of Islands, interviews participating artist Shireen Seno about her filmic practice that explores memory, family, and living in the diaspora.

Date 2 September 2021 Interview Robbie Handcock Images Supplied

Shireen Seno, Shotgun Tuding [film still], 2014, 16mm colour, Philippines/Malaysia, 13 min.

Robbie Handcock: I thought we might start by discussing Shotgun Tuding, your work included in The Inner Lives of Islands that was on recently at Te Tuhi. One of the things that drew me to that work was the way you played with genre. You describe it as a “Pancit Western,” or “Noodle Western” translated from Tagalog, which I think is really funny. It informed a lot of my broader thinking around how I put the exhibition together—the way you used foreign storytelling or film techniques to tell a local story. I started looking for this in the way other artists deal with foreignness as well. Do you want to talk to how that film came about?

Shireen Seno: It was in 2014. I had made a feature length film called Big Boy with a group of young filmmakers, early to mid-twenties, who were just coming into their own. There was a guy who, at the time, was more known for cinematography and there was [another] guy who was more known for his art direction. I was wondering what I wanted to do next. We had so much fun making Big Boy and I wanted to work with them again, but this time I wanted to do something less serious.

I was commissioned to make Shotgun Tuding as a Filipino counterpart to a Southeast Asian omnibus film. It was a Malaysian production and they had filmmakers from Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. It was a women’s film initiative. I was flattered to be commissioned to make anything, but I was also a little bit stuck as to what I would do. I’m not used to making things for a kind of agenda.

I guess I always go back to my own personal and family histories. I was thinking about a story I heard from my grandfather. I was never close to him at all, so when he talked to me about this it struck a chord. He had migrated to Los Angeles because he was offered US citizenship, having fought for the US against a Japanese-occupied Philippines during World War II. The US offered a lot of Filipino veterans citizenship in the ’90s. So he was living by himself in a huge bungalow in Los Angeles and he was telling me the story of how my father came to be. During the war, my grandfather was stationed on a faraway island. He’s from Cebu but he was stationed in Mindoro and he fell in love with a young school teacher. He had gotten her pregnant and then decided to totally abandon her and go back to Cebu. He said the girl’s older sister hunted him down with a shotgun and basically forced him to come back and marry her. That was the start of their family of nine kids. My father was the first and he was born out of wedlock. You call it a shotgun wedding so I thought I would play around with that. Her name was Tuding, so it would be Shotgun Tuding and she would be the star of this.

I loved it. It had a really interesting moment that I didn’t pick up on until I watched it with my mum. It’s one of the quieter moments when Tuding and Neong are sitting under a tree, and he’s recounting this story of encountering an unarmed soldier after the war and being unable to shoot him. It’s a really quiet part of the film. My mum had told me stories about some of the aftermath of World War II in the Philippines. This moment touches on something a lot more harrowing than what the film lets on to be.

There’s a lot of things that are unspoken within a family. Now, being a parent, I understand a lot more. It’s hard raising a family and I think there are things you do just to get by every day as a parent. As a kid, you have some sense of it, but you don’t really understand. I just try to make sense of these strange memories I have from childhood, growing up with a particular mix of cultures and not really understanding where I was coming from, so I had this unfinished business.
— Shireen Seno

Shireen Seno, Shotgun Tuding [film still], 2014, 16mm colour, Philippines/Malaysia, 13 min.

Shireen Seno, Shotgun Tuding. Installation view, Te Tuhi, August 2021. 

In your practice you mine personal histories and have an interest in nostalgia. In your two feature films, Big Boy and Nervous Translation, you look through the perspective, or lens, of childhood. In Nervous Translation there’s another really specific Filipino experience that’s explored, that of the Overseas Filipino Worker. You’ve said previously that you’re interested in the subtle violences experienced in childhood. What’s your perspective on those themes dealing with them from a specifically Filipino context? 

I’ve struggled a lot with identity since I was young because I grew up outside the Philippines. I ended up here when I was much older, when I was 27. I grew up in Japan and my only familiarity with the Philippines was the few trips we’d take during summer breaks. I went to an international school in Japan because my mum was a teacher there and I was made to represent the Philippines. I was very insecure about representing a country I was quite distant from. I guess I make films as a way to make sense of all these things I didn’t understand growing up, to demystify them. It’s not necessarily to figure out what happened, but more just to process and put my own spin on it. 

There’s a lot of things that are unspoken within a family. Now, being a parent, I understand a lot more. It’s hard raising a family and I think there are things you do just to get by every day as a parent. As a kid, you have some sense of it, but you don’t really understand. I just try to make sense of these strange memories I have from childhood, growing up with a particular mix of cultures and not really understanding where I was coming from, so I had this unfinished business. 

I went to college in North America and spent a lot of time there. It feels like there’s a definite pull. America is the place to be for a lot of Filipinos and you get swept into that. You don’t really have a say sometimes. I felt like I was expected to go West and Japan was just this in between place that would get us there eventually. When I was there I asked myself what I I was doing there? I didn’t even know where I was from. Going back to Japan, then the Philippines later, it kind of came together in making films and art.

Shireen Seno, Nervous Translation [film stills], 2018, 2K colour, Philippines, 90 min.

Did you have strong Filipino communities outside of the Philippines, in Japan and the US?

There are very strong communities, but my family is strange in that sense. We didn’t really socialise much. My mum was busy raising three kids and my father was distant, the kind of a typical aloof dad in the background. I guess we were at home most of the time but not really together. My dad is a very quiet guy so when he tells stories I would really take them to heart, just like my grandfather. I would hang on to them as a way to feel some kind of connection to my roots.

Interestingly, I was having a conversation with someone just yesterday, about how it was only recently I realised how different my experience of living in the Philippines was to a lot of people. We moved back to the Philippines when I was six, to the village where my mum is from in Bicol. We lived on a coconut farm close to Mount Bulusan so we had natural hot springs by the edge of the farm. It was this really picturesque rural life. We still had a pump where we pumped water from the ground. Most of mum’s side of the family were there. In my head, I think that aspect of the Philippines was really idyllic and charming in a lot of ways, but also I also know full well that city life, and life in general, is really different for a huge number of people in the Philippines. It’s interesting to contend with that, especially with people like you and I who spent their childhoods mostly away from the Philippines. You have that funny relationship when you’re living in the diaspora.

Shireen Seno, Big Boy [film still], 2021, Super 8 colour, Philippines, 89 min.

Shireen Seno, Big Boy [film still], 2021, Super 8 colour, Philippines, 89 min.

Shireen Seno, Big Boy [film still], 2021, Super 8 colour, Philippines, 89 min.

You work between ‘art film’ and ‘narrative film’. How do you differentiate or move between these two modes?

I guess I go back and forth. It’s a different process for the more narrative works. For the funding that I’ve received for them I had to produce a script. So it had to go through a specific process, a more narrative process of making a film. I find it’s quite restrictive and after a narrative film I really want to do something that’s just me. I go back into my cave and I don’t want to work with anyone, so it’s just me or my husband [John Torres] who is also a filmmaker. I feel that narrative filmmaking is more of a public process for me. You need help from others so it’s more of a reaching out. There’s also some kind of withdrawal symptom from that euphoria of being connected with others. It’s a really amazing feeling, that connection, but afterwards you also just want to do your own thing. It’s a back and forth between those modes.

I don’t really like to separate where the works are screened. I think they tend to move quite fluidly in between the art world and the film world, which I’m quite happy about. I think being in between, not being so much in the film industry and not in the art market, has been quite fortunate. Both my husband and I are in that grey area and have been able to make the most of it.

I think you’re similar to Christopher Ulutupu in that way, who was also in The Inner Lives of Islands. He initially went to theatre school and worked in theatre and film within the art department and film direction. He got sick of it, I think he got burnt out, did a completely different job for a couple of years, and then decided he wanted to go to art school. That film and theatre experience has really informed how he deals with his video practice now as an artist. In art school, I think it doesn’t matter what your medium is, there’s always an element of having to be self-taught. You kind of figure out what it is your medium is doing. Did you go to art school or film school?

No, neither, in a way. I didn’t go to a film production school, it was a liberal arts degree. I did a double major in architectural studies, which was more history and theory, and then film studies, also in history, theory and criticism. So it was more cultural studies than any kind of making or production. I didn’t expect I would be making things, actually. I expected to be writing.

Shireen Seno, Big Boy [film still], 2021, Super 8 colour, Philippines, 89 min.

How did you get into the filmmaking side of it?

It just came along. I found it very rewarding to be encountering works from this independent Filipino film movement, like Lav Diaz, Raya Martin and John Torres. As much as I found it rewarding to work with them, there was still something inside of me percolating. They were encouraging me to make my own things. At the time, I was just taking photographs and having fun with it, but also finding it a form of expression as well. They said, why don’t you make a film too? They made it look so easy and fun. I got the bug and I wanted to be part of that.

Going back to what you were saying about your filmmaking operating between cinema and the art world quite fluidly, I saw images of your exhibition Cloudy with a Chance of Coconuts with John Torres at Portikus in Frankfurt. I’ve been to Portikus once, years ago, it’s this beautifully strange building. I really wished I could have seen your exhibition there in person, but the images look amazing. The installation you did also housed a cinema, didn’t it?

It was an installation that was a kind of a crime scene/set that also turned into a cinema. John and I were invited to do a show and we found ourselves short of time. As young parents, we were finding it hard to balance our film and art-making and raising a child. We wanted to integrate that aspect of family life into our practice. During our daughter’s first two years of life, we found ourselves constantly travelling for work. While we’re away, we also worry about what we have left behind, like our house and our car. We have this fairly tall coconut tree right outside our house in Quezon City and a couple of times it has smashed the windshield of our car. So when we leave we would use a baby monitor to monitor our car and if any coconuts smashed the windows we could get someone to do a makeshift cover over our windshield. We decided to recreate that scene at Portikus with our old-school car and a coconut tree with this surreal sense of falling coconuts suspended in mid-air. It also turned into a cinema where we played our films on certain days during the show. As part of the installation, we put an iPhone in the corner of the space showing the live feed of a coconut tree being watched through a baby monitor.

Shireen Seno, Shotgun Tuding [film still], 2014, 16mm colour, Philippines/Malaysia, 13 min.

I’m interested to learn more about Los Otros, the collective you have with John Torres. As part of The Inner Lives of Islands we included the Kalampag Tracking Agency, a screening programme that surveys 30 years of experimental film and video from the Philippines. We held a discussion with Merv Espina, Martha Atienza, Tad Ermitaño and yourself, which for me felt like a glimpse into this film scene in the Philippines of people who work together and all seem quite tight knit. Do you want to talk about what Los Otros do as well as the film community more broadly in Manila and the Philippines.

Los Otros is basically me and John opening our house up to others. Before the pandemic, we used to do a lot of screenings, workshops and artist talks. It was a way for us to reach out to others and show works of friends and people we admire, to create a sense of community in this area that we’re in, between film and art. As with anywhere, they are quite separate circles here. We don’t easily fit into either, which is I guess why we call ourselves Los Otros, Spanish for “the others.” We know there are others who are also “others” so we used our space to connect, reach out and cultivate an audience for what we do. It was really great. We had our regulars who would come. There were a lot of students because we live in a neighbourhood of Quezon City that is quite central but also very close to two major universities, the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila. We’ve got a great young audience and then a mix of different artists and musicians. It’s really nice to get a varied audience in addition to the regulars. We were inspired by other artist-run spaces in the metro, such Green Papaya Art Projects, where Merv Espina used to work. Green Papaya was a big model for us. They showed us ways of making that were less about the object or the product but more about the process and working with others. They had a lot of events where there was nothing to be seen or shown, but someone would be invited to cook and everyone would eat together. It was a lot of different ways of thinking about art and being together.

You mentioned that big turn out of younger people. Are there any young or up-and-coming Manila artists or filmmakers you’re excited by?

For sure! There’s so many. I’m actually pretty honoured to be curating the next Thirteen Artists Awards, run by the CCP (or Cultural Center of the Philippines). I had been part of the last batch of artists in 2018 and every batch they select a previous awardee to curate. I really didn’t expect to be asked because I received the award recently, but it was really nice to be asked. It gives me a way to reconnect after being so caught up in domestic life and not being able to really follow what’s going on. It’s great to work with these artists and showcase their work. It’s quite uncertain yet as to how it will turn out because of the pandemic. We are supposed to have a show at the CCP, but how that’s going to play between now and January when it’s due to open, is up in the air.

Some young artists I admire: there’s Ian Jaucian who does quite conceptual work and is also very technical. He has an interest in science, so there’s that aspect to his work. There’s koloWn, which took its name from the oldest street in the Philippines, Colon Street in Cebu, and from the idea of colonialism. It’s a kind of street art collective whose individual identities are unknown to the public, and even to each other. Quite a few of the awardees are based abroad. There’s Catherine Young, who is now based in Australia and also has a background in science and working with youth. Patrick Cruz is a Filipino-Canadian painter who also has an artist-run initiative called Kamias Triennial. It’s like an anti-triennial and is very community based. He runs it out of his house every three years and tries to connect other Canadian artists with Filipino artists. The awardees are a really interesting group that I’m excited to work with.

I’ll keep an eye out for the exhibition!

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