In his previous features such as “Bonsái” and “Optical Illusions,” Cristián Jiménez has often operated at a distance, interested in an audience’s interpretation of the events that unfold as much as how his characters process them, resulting in Rorschach tests that nonetheless bore a personal stamp in its wry humor and sharp, observational eye. However in returning to his birthplace of Valdivia, the Chilean writer/director has made something closer to home in every way with “Voice Over,” the story of a flighty thirtysomething named Sofia (Ingrid Isensee) who has ricocheted from a pursuit of anthropology to acting while supporting her two kids, shaken by her father Manuel’s decision to unexpectedly separate from her mother Matilde (Paulina Garcia) after 35 years of marriage.
Sofia’s curiosity about why Manuel decided to leave begins to eat away at her, as does her sister Ana’s seeming disinterest, but after she stumbles onto a possible reason, Jiménez tracks how a secret can ripple throughout the many generations of a family in small and unexpected ways. Jiménez himself makes no secret of wanting to do a film in the naturalistic, melancholy vein of Ozu’s “I Was Born But…” yet he manages to make something very much his own, questioning the conventions of filmmaking such as the film’s titular allusion to narration as it applies real life (instigated by Sofia’s burgeoning career as a voiceover artist) and charting a story of those connected by blood but not necessarily belief, which makes things deliciously complicated as the family keeps up the traditions of their past togetherness – the tennis matches between sisters, the weekend gatherings at their mother’s house – but begin to drift in their own separate directions. Shortly after the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, en route to the San Sebastián Film Festival, Jiménez and his star Isensee spoke about how the filmmaker wanted to explore a different set of senses with his latest film, how rehearsals took a back seat to playing tennis in creating a familial bond and the difficulty of achieving the rhythm of life.
You mentioned at the premiere that this really all started with the title. How did it grow from there?
Cristián Jiménez: I had just released a film called “Optical Illusions” that was really about perception, about the way we see things and distort things, so it’s really about vision and the eye and I really wanted to make a film that was more about sound and dialogue. I was leafing through something and [came across] voiceover and I thought this can be a good title. I had the idea of working with a family, telling a story that happens through a year and having this conflict about storytelling – how to tell a story, what is going on, what it means, and what is going on, which really connects with the idea of voiceover. I really had that core before I had the characters or the plot.
In terms of how the family connects with each other, did the actors get to spend a lot of time together before the production started to be a family?
Ingrid Isensee: Not really, just a couple of rehearsals, like living the street or a couple of scenes and just playing.
Cristian Jiménez: Actually, with Maria, the actress playing [Ingrid’s character’s sister] Ana, they actually spent more time taking tennis lessons than they did rehearsing – I think they rehearsed together twice, but you had like 10 tennis lessons. In a way, that’s when the bondwas happening because they didn’t know how to play, so it was like bringing children together.
Ingrid Isensee: The relationship of the sisters in life is a lot like tennis, so it was a good rehearsal.
Is it true you hired an anthropologist to do research for the film? That seems to be going quite deep for something that seems light on the surface.
Cristian Jiménez: I studied sociology, so I’m close to that way of thinking. In this case, it helped me out to have this person who could get more material read and more interviews done right away than I could do by myself, but it was also almost like a refreshment of certain things and [helped] simplify my thinking of certain ideas that could belong to the story. That’s also why I made Anna to be a [onetime] professor of anthropology.
I also read a bit about psychologists, and the role of their work of speaking within a family when there are secrets and how important it is for someone to come and name things. It was also very important for me to understand what that was about and this really has been a creative discovery for me, on a personal level and also on an artistic level.
Ingrid, were you privy to that research?
Ingrid Isensee: No, but I read the script a long time ago, so I familiarized [myself] with the history. [I could relate because] the character is my age and everyone has secrets, family secrets, and everyone needs to [move on with their life] and when you need to start again, you need to know what’s gone on before and where you are standing. That’s why I understood the need of the character to know the secret [in her family] because it’s the new way she can stand up in life. This sensation, this feeling was enough for me.
The way secrets are treated in the story was quite refreshing – they have a lot of power, but they aren’t revealed as big revelations, but smaller ones that ripple through time. Did you want to avoid the obvious in that way?
Cristian Jiménez: Often in films, because there is a certain kind of dramatic structure, it’s overwhelmingly common to see conflict rise and rise constantly towards a solution. Family life is often way more complex than that. The truth doesn’t shine like it does in so many films that we’ve seen, it’s more opaque. There are many sides to it.
Ingrid Isensee: There are too many characters involved in the truth.
Cristian Jiménez: Exactly, and in this case, the problem that the characters are dealing with is linked to the fact that the truth is so pervasive and it’s so hard at the same time to catch. It’s just something that is escaping from them. It’s not something that they can just capture and put in a box and say, “Okay, that’s it.” With a small problem, it’s more slippery than that and that’s what’s disturbing them. It’s a communication problem that these people are having, especially the character of Sofia, and in real life, especially if we think of families, even if we know a lot, there’s so many sides that you can’t access them all even though we might be open about ourselves.
Was this an easy film to edit? You’re able to get a rhythm that feels very authentic to real life.
Cristian Jiménez: It was very difficult, especially because this is not so close to what I’ve done before. I knew from the moment I was writing it that I wanted to have these voiceover moments where it might be just two people speaking, but the dialogue comes to the front and the image goes somewhere else and the two together create meaning that is not the same as when you’re watching two people talking. That was something that was really important, and became more central and more developed through the editing.
I also knew I wanted [the film] to have this vital rhythm. I worked more at a distance in terms of acting and also framing, often on tripod and with more neuroses [slight laugh] in the way of framing. In this case, the more and more I developed the film, I wanted this to be something that had more the pulse of life. We searched for that through the shooting and also through the editing.
Ingrid said it was her first time seeing the film at the premiere and you really seemed taken aback…
Ingrid Isensee: Yeah, I was. I compare the sensation of watching a film for the first time like when you finish a theater piece, you’re on the stage, you finish your work, and you go to backstage and you take everything off. When you are at a premiere, you play the piece, but you have the audience in front of you and you have to decompress in front of the people. It was the first time I saw the movie and it was like, “Wow.”