Movie : Separation
Director : Vicky Zhuang Yi-Yin
Vicky Zhuang Yi-Yin is a First Generation Pakistani-born-Chinese storyteller, theatre and film productionist, performer, writer, poet, singer and educator. She graduated from the Lahore School of Economics in 2011 in BBA (Hons) majoring in Finance and Minoring in Mathematics and Statistics. She Co-Founded OLOMOPOLO Media in 2013, and it works towards art and performance in Pakistan, with a lot of focus on high quality theatre productions and providing space for expression to young artists. She regularly conducts and designs art and theatre activities for youths and young children to help them gain confidence and learn to express themselves. While at OLO, her current designation is Director of Communications and Media Strategies, she also teaches O Levels IGCSE Drama at Lahore Grammar School, Johar Town Branch and 1-A-1 Branch. She also works at the Lahore American School as a Secondary and High School Performance Arts Teacher.
There are stories around us. We see some of them and look past the other ones. At times we can’t even locate them. What is the significance of a story for you? Why do you think it is important for stories to exist in a world that often appears crude and indifferent?
A story is a representation of times, a lesson and a way of tuning out the current world, to feel what other people feel. It is important for stories to exist because they can inspire us, they can make us cry and laugh and think. I believe stories teach us about empathy and can really help shape the kind of people we can and want to be.
How did you come up with the story of Separation? Did you always think about making a movie on a topic like this or did it grow on you in due course of time?
So, another designation I go by is a teacher, and as you know, teachers have to proctor exams. I was proctoring one day, and while I was wandering in the class making sure the boys were not cheating, my mind started wandering off towards stories that I could write. One of the stories I wanted to explore was the finality of death, suicide and what happens when families turn away from their children when they come out. Basically, I wanted to ask this question, that if we know someone for so long, and if they tell us something that is important about them, that we may not agree with, do we turn them away or do we really unconditionally love them just the way they are.
I have often been limitedly exposed to LGBTIQ+ films that are mostly about exploration of sexuality, or finding love, or about that journey to finally coming out or accepting themselves. But there was this film that I remembered watching where a mother holds her daughter’s hand when she comes out to her saying, “Mom, I’m gay.” The mother, just nonchalantly says, “No, no you’re not.” And that was the end of it. No screaming, no shouting, but just that silent denial, and the daughter just goes about her life as if she didn’t come out. It was the most impactful part of the film for me. I wanted to explore what happens after that. I was also inspired by Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Rosa Diaz arc of coming out to her parents. So when I became a part of the 4×4=20 Film Fellowship Cum Festival, whose themes were “Being Yourself: The Right to Love” I had to make my film.
Another reason I wanted to make Separation was to explore the way people deal with issues like suicide. Due to its taboo nature, people often don’t talk about it, and they often try to hide it. The film also had a lot of “controlling the narrative” theme going in it, where a family wants to seem happy and normal even in the face of such a traumatic experience. You can see the father completely ignoring those aspects and telling the surviving son to just remember him in good memories only. These were very important elements for me to have in the film.
What has been that one movie that has mesmerised you? The movie you keep on going back to.
That has by far been the hardest question for me to respond to because there are just so many movies. I’m a huge fan of anime and one of my all time favorite films is Sword of the Stranger, and I keep going back to it because I just love the art work, the characters and the story and the MUSIC. Love it. I think another film that I really go back to always is Doctor Strange. I know it’s not considered great cinema by many aficionados, but it helped me through a very difficult time, especially the scene where the Ancient One dies and when Doctor Strange tells her he isn’t ready to lead the others, and she responds, No one really is. It helped me cope with my father’s death and that’s one of the reasons why it is so impactful because the year it was releasing I was constantly trying to ready myself for the time he would leave, to be strong for the family, but when the time happened, I really wasn’t. And it helped me feel like I wasn’t alone then. And I think that’s one of the reasons why stories are so important in this world.
Tell us something about the performances in your movie. How important was it for the actors to bring out the correct emotions, convey the thoughts , the gestures, the ideas to the audience? Where do you locate the significance of the performances?
I had a lot of conversations with Nimra Bucha, Arslan Khan and Fawad Jalal on what their characters represented in the story. It was really important for them to understand why their characters were behaving in a certain way, and saying things that they were saying in the film. Their motivations were driven by something that happened before the film happens, so it was important that they got that right. The rest was pretty easy because they are extremely talented actors. Nimra Bucha is QUEEN by the way and I just had to speak to her about what her character stands for in the society and she just blew me away, like she always does. Her character really represents the difficulty of a mother to love their child unconditionally, while at the same time wanting to protect their child from the society, and herself from being pointed fingers at. So there’s this complexity that she shows so beautifully in this film.
What do you have to say about the technical aspects of your movie? For example : the usage of the background score, the use of colours and lights and sometimes the lack of them. Can you tell us something about the thought behind them?
This is the first film that I worked on with a proper crew, and I was amazed at everyone’s professionalism and acceptance of me as a director. Farman Ali (DOP), Faiz Zaidi (Sound Recordist and Mix), Nadeem Abbas and Subtain Nazir (Editors) and Amir Hussaini (Line Producer) were the most supportive of the process. This film was also sort of like a reunion as I collaborated with the AMAZING Gentle Robot (Ibrahim Imdad) who was my college friend and he created this melancholic soundtrack that goes so well with the film and it just totally lifted everything for me.
The story in a number of places reminded me of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. The novel like your movie discusses life , death and the profound impact they have on existence generally. How a deep absence affects human beings generally. Do you believe the movie does a similar thing?
Humans are a creature of companionship. We always leave a footprint of ourselves with the people that we meet. It can be negative or positive, but we always leave a mark. And so, even when a person dies, we still remember them and sometimes we do something that makes us remember them, especially if they were really close. In Separation, the character who I consider is the main character has died before the film begins, but at the same time, we get glimpses of the kind of person he is through the dialogue or images of the person in the scene, or even the short instagram bio page we see in the beginning or the text message he sends. And the absence is often painful when there are things that you want to say but you can’t anymore. And I think its true that absence impacts us as humans, but it also gives way to inspiration. So I think the film did just that.
Each and every frame of the movie has been dexterously constructed. Each of them has a different and profound story to tell. What would you like to say about the sequence of the frames displayed on the screen? The frames turned the tone of the movie into a unique and rare one.
That’s the most amazing comment I have heard. Thank you so much for that. Being a first time filmmaker for fiction and that too in a language I’m not very comfortable writing in, I had to rely heavily on the visuals I wanted to show. Every frame, including the images on phones and pictures that I have selected to put up on the walls had specific regards to the Jibi (Jibran).
I get giddy when I watch films that have so much attention to detail that I just wanted to make sure I did the same. And I hope I did.
The objects, the colours, the emptiness perhaps suggested by the presence of the colour white, play a vital role in moving the narrative forward. They perform an equally important role in the movie. Would you like to say something about the intense presence of silence in the movie, the presence of objects, the colours or the lack of them appearing on the screen?
I like the minimalism in terms of visuals of the film. I wanted the focus to be on the performance, which is I believe part of my theater training, and on the question, who was Jibi? So the production design was motivated by that.
One of the most important things I learnt from a colleague of mine is “Show, don’t tell”. It has sort of become a style that I think I’m developing where I focus more on the contemplative nature of the moment. To me, silence speaks more, and silence is also representative of how we suppress a lot of our voices in times of distress, but it all has to blow up like a volcano when the pressure builds up and that’s what you see in Separation.
I was lucky to find an apartment that had grey walls and minimal furniture which complemented the mood of the film. I just had to add the things, like pictures, that would add to the rooms to make it feel lived by these characters, so that we feel like we know who these people are by watching where they live.
Distance plays a vital role in the movie. It is evident that the bereaved family has a myriad number of impressions and interpretations about the death of Jibran. There is a strong presence of resentment in the movie accompanying the general tone of agony. They must stick together. They must rediscover the glee in life, they must try to love each other again getting past the abysmal distance that is tormenting the family. Do you agree?
Yes. And this distance is not just physical distance. It’s the emotional distance that the characters have created. They have to deal with trauma, each doing it in their own way, but now they have to figure out how to move forward, do they learn from this tragedy and go back? Or do they open their minds and mend the strained relationship with their surviving son now or risk losing him to this resentment.
How would you describe separation? Is it easy to look past the effects a death has on a family? Do you think love as powerful it is , has the ability to protect human beings from an eternal plummet? The movie also projects the belligerent spirit of mankind, their desire to smile , full of glee. Do you agree?
Separation, to me, is my baby. But in all honesty, Separation is a story about grief, about how the society likes to keep us in a mold, the finality of death and the importance of real, unconditional love.
Love is powerful, but only if it is unconditional, like, if you love someone, you want to see them grow, and maybe it’s not your way that makes them grow so you let them choose their path to growth. Dictating how someone else should live their lives on our own terms is not love to me. Yes, there are reservations, but if we truly love somebody, we should let them find their own path. Holding their hands through their path, not just dragging them onto our own path is what I believe the hardest way of expressing love. People want to be happy, but they also want people to support them throught it all, and that’s what I want people to take away from Separation. Happy memories are good and all, but at the end of the day, when we want people to be happy, then we should really mean it and support them.. This way, they can create more memories, and maybe go ahead and live a more meaningful life.