We’ve all seen representations of the immigrant experience, but probably nothing like Agua Viva, a poignant hand-drawn animation detailing the poetic thoughts of a Chinese manicurist in Miami. Steady paced and introspective, the film is a deeply moving depiction of how “the simplest of words can communicate immense depth”. The painterly film sees the bustling new world of Miami through the protagonist MeiMei’s eyes; a world of isolation, alienation and a seemingly insurmountable language barrier.
Director Alexa Lim Haas sensitively illustrates the film through beautifully detailed paintings. Calligraphic strokes outline the bold foreground objects against opaque background washes. Animated using sumi ink, normally used for calligraphy, along with acryla gouache, oil pastels and crayons; the film is full of rich textures and the overlapping use of mixed-media builds a vivid atmosphere that compliments the sombre-toned voiceover.
Speaking to It’s Nice That, Alexa discusses the influences behind the film and reveals how she took on the mammoth task of writing, directing and animating Agua Viva.
It’s Nice That: How did you arrive at the concept for Agua Viva?
Alexa Lim Haas: In 2014 I was studying Mandarin in Shanghai and teaching English one-on-one to adults from around the world. They all preferred to practice their English through conversation that felt similar to therapy sessions, rather than the sterile dialogue of our textbooks. To the best of their English abilities, they would describe their deepest feelings to their most cherished memories. Sometimes we even cried. I came to appreciate how the simplest of words can communicate immense depth and I was very moved by the poetry of their word choices.
For example, the last line of the film is “Are there words for such a feeling?” The term “multi-feeling” is a word that a Tai chi teacher often used to express contradicting feelings.
INT: How did you develop the protagonist’s character for the film? Is she based on anyone you know?
ALH: The spirit of the character comes from my auntie, Patrocenia Oledan, who was a housekeeper from the age of 14 well into the twilight of her life. Before she moved back to the Philippines, I had the benefit of coexisting with her quiet and peaceful demeanour that I aspire to everyday. She would sit quietly, starting out the window for an hour, then turn round and ask me something trivial like if I was hungry, giving no hint to what she had been thinking about. I don’t speak Filipino and her English is also limited so our love for each other was expressed in silence through smiles and gestures.
If you read only the words of the movie, it reads like a poem about in the body what to do in the body and how to express the things inside of it. That part of the character is based on myself and my own feelings of inadequacy in communication, as well as my bad habits with bodily health. I wrote it while doing research at nail salons in Miami, New York and Philadelphia, interviewing nail technicians while documenting their daily routines and process.
INT: Why did you choose to do a hand-drawn animation rather than digitally animate it?
ALH: I love the loss of control with hand-drawn materials and prefer to work with them even if they need to be scanned in one page at a time. I also love to work with sumi ink because it forces me to commit to the line. If I work digitally or with a pencil, I have a bad tendency to erase and overwork one image until it loses its essence.
INT: Please can you tell us about the overall creative process for making the film?
ALH: The movie was very challenging to piece together. I wrote about ten pages of disconnected thoughts and phrases and then recorded it with Mengda Zhang, a brilliant artist and student from Nanjing. I tried to flush out all the images from my mind by doodling onto hundreds of index cards, I wasn’t precious or attached to any one idea. But through this process, I found that there were repeated themes and symbols that I kept coming back to. Then, I pieced the images over the audio edit like a puzzle. When there were holes in the storyline, I went back to the nail salon to search for answers. For instance, the conversation about intimacy during the Brazilian wax scene is taken from a real conversation I had with a family friend who is a manicurist, MeiMei, who I named the protagonist after.
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