When a film screening is greeted first with silence, it is certainly not easy on the director. “It was so scary, everybody was so silent in the theatre we were terrified that everybody hated it,” Maximón Monihan says a day after the world premiere of his directorial debut La Voz de los silenciados–The Voice of the Voiceless at the Mumbai Film Festival in October 2013. Monihan does the clever thing and asks lead actor Janeva Zentz to join him on stage for the post-screening Q&A session. And, as if on cue, the audience welcomes her with a thunderous applause.
La Voz de los silenciados is the story of 17-year-old Olga, a hearing-impaired girl from Guatemala, who is lured to New York to attend a sign language school. On arrival, she finds herself enslaved to an international criminal syndicate, forced to sell “I am deaf” trinkets on the subway. The film is based on actual events that took place in New York in the 1990s when it was common for commuters to encounter these Central American “students” on the subway who placed trinkets on empty seats with cards saying they were being sold to fund their education. When the crime ring was busted after six years, it only stayed a couple of days in American newspapers, says Monihan.
The affable Monihan, always seen in his black hat and skinny tie, grew up in Seattle and was actively involved in professional skateboarding, besides making skate films and a stint as film critic with Pseudo.com. Now based out of Brooklyn, his production company Bricolagista! has made a number of short films, online TV series, and music videos.
I meet Monihan and Zentz at the Taj President in Mumbai where guests of the festival were put up. They blamed their late arrival on the sauna at the hotel and told me how taken in they were by the property’s luxuriousness. We moved our interview away from the lobby to the quieter business lounge upstairs, admiring the staircase on the way. How did Monihan decide to make this film? “I didn’t really decide to make the film. I felt like I had to tell it. We had slavery happening right in front of our faces, every day, and people were oblivious, or worse, skeptical about it. And that was a blatant sign of our humanity disappearing right into thin air. When we got the camera for free, there wasn’t a choice of what story I wanted to tell,” he says.
The film comes at a time when the first index to attempt to measure the scale of modern-day slavery on a country-by-country basis was published in October 2013. The case of three women who were enslaved in London is the most recent in a series of modern-day slavery cases.
The film began its festival circuit with Mumbai and has been screened at Dharamsala, Kerala, Thessaloniki, Glasgow, and Göteborg. It is headed to the Istanbul Film Festival in April this year. I ask about the larger intent of the film and if the team plan to take it to Central America.
We really hope that we can play it anywhere and everywhere. We feel like it’s a universal problem and it’s a universally expressed treatment of the story. We need to recognize that all of this stuff affects all of us and we all are responsible and we all have agency, and so, of course, I want it to play in Central America, South America, Africa, everywhere. I want people to realize that these issues happen in the so-called affluent free societies to the most oppressive troubled societies.
For research, Monihan relied on a friend who knew one of the victims, and he read news articles from US, Mexican, and Guatemalan publications.
The details of what actually went on was pretty limited though, as more focus was put on the legal situation of the culprits and what would happen to the “students” once the ring was busted. And honestly, once I got a good grasp of the facts, I felt it was important to push all the details away, so I could focus creatively on how best to tell the story, cinematically. I did not want to be bogged down with details and hyper accuracy. It was more important to tell the soul of the story and the emotional truths in a way that would pull the audience in.
At the screening I attended, the film seemed to have succeeded on that count. One man in the audience spoke of feeling guilt, and another who had lived in New York admitted he had seen these victims but had never known their story. Monihan says this was something many of his New Yorker friends said too.
The team deliberately chose a fiction format, balancing art and the message. “If it is documentary, it is too specific. And that allows the audience to absolve themselves and compartmentalize it. If it’s a narrative, it’s more fable-istic and it sort of spreads to everybody,” says Monihan. Sheena Matheiken, Monihan’s wife and the film’s producer who has joined us, adds,
When you categorise films into films of social relevance and things like that, very often it falls into these expectations that this is going to be a boring film and ‘I don’t want to see it.’ For some reason, the minute you attach a social issue to an art form, whether it is political art or if there is any element of activism in it, suddenly it loses some of the art in it. We do not see enough art forms and film where the issue is equally important as the art form itself. So treating a film as a film and also having a strong social issue at the same time, that’s what we were trying to do. It succeeded in doing that we think. It is a really beautiful film; it is not just trying to give you a social message.
It need not be either/or . . . , but you need to pay attention to both sides. You don’t want to be didactic or pedantic. You don’t want to be preachy. You want to still have the flavour of magic and cinema in there too. You need to walk a very tight rope to get it right, and who knows, we clearly see a lot of the mistakes, but just the response meant a lot to us that people seem to get both sides of those things.
La Voz de los silenciados is a silent film that uses a low-frequency sound design that helps the audience enter Olga’s headspace. It has also been in the making for five years, so it does predate The Artist in concept, Monihan points out. “When you are trying to make something creative, you have to find ways to do it which hopefully have not been done to death. Because we had this subject matter, it just seemed like an obvious choice to try to do something where we played with the overall experience. This sound designer friend of ours who did the work, [Miguel] Coffman, he is just amazing. I had the idea in my head but he brought it to life, it makes it something special. It is a huge part of the film. If it was just dead silence, you would hear the noise in the theatre and that would be distracting. This gives you a sense of the claustrophobia that is her existence. In this kind of situation, it gives you a sense of how she moves in a soundless world,” he says. The film employs sound at different decibels- so there are bone crunching noises, muffled sounds and some everyday sounds which appear amplified. Zentz says one can make out the speed of the train Olga is travelling in simply by the sound beats and the “visual pace’. Incidentally, the sound was recorded separately and added to the film. Monihan laughs, “We did not record any sound while we were shooting because we did not have money for microphones!” His background in skate films came in handy. Using guerrilla techniques to shoot and with no permits or insurance, the crew had to be quick on their feet, similar in experience to filming skateboarding as Monihan puts it.
The New York portions which form the majority of the film are in black and white, contrasting the Guatemala shots bursting with colour. New York with its subways and crowds form the urban, grey landscape which Olga has to navigate for her survival. The loss of colour is reinforced in Olga’s clothes. She goes from vibrant skirts and tunics to dark trousers and a jacket-the uniform provided by the crime gang.
Olga and the others trapped at the “school” are given a $100 daily target they have to earn, failing which they face physical torture. It is made clear to them that their families back home will face dire consequences if they attempt to escape or alert anyone to their predicament. The monotony of the routine and the desperation of her situation are not missed; it is by no means an easy film to watch. Even so, Olga is shown using her creativity and intelligence to make the best of what she has. We see her getting around the system and earning extra money which she spends on short eats, trips to the city’s landmarks and even treating herself to a pedicure. Through it all, she is guided by her stuffed toy, a penguin, which takes on the role of her inner voice. Olga has a flair for sketching and enlivens her “performance” on the subway with a short dance she choreographs. I ask the team about these moments of joy. Monihan says,
Life is never one note. We wanted to show that she was a strong and resourceful and witty character that resisted. Everybody resists, everybody fights back in their own small ways. When faced with all this horrible stuff, you still find a way to laugh at times and to find enjoyment in things and we just wanted to show that. Otherwise, it would have been beating the audience down with misery and that is not how life really is.
For the pedicure scene, they shot at a salon in China Town near Zentz’s old house. She says,
The ladies knew me. There were little things where I was able to add to the character’s dimension. I really like what Monihan said though about life not just being one note. Even though our tendency as humans is to create a story, our everyday is a story. Our life is a story; we look at our past as a story. And we draw the connections we want to draw. We are like, “oh that was a very dark period of my life … that was bad, bad, bad, bad” but you are just picking out those bad moments and putting them together. There must have been some good moments in there too so you can rewrite a whole other past. So I think it is actually realistic.
Zentz speaks of a friendship Olga strikes with one of the other victims, “the sharing was small but incredibly meaningful because she has so little.” A first time actor, Zentz gets into Olga’s skin convincingly. Monihan says how commuters gave Zentz money, “Most of the time when we tried to give the money back “see here’s a camera, we’re making a movie!” they would say “no, she needs it more than us,” and refused to take their money back.”
Like Zentz, most of the cast and crew are first timers and friends or acquaintances of Monihan. The team wears their independent filmmaking credentials and their enthusiasm on their sleeve. Matheiken says,
This is our first festival. We are going on a bunch from here. We submitted and it got accepted and we are here. We do not have a sales agent. We do not have anything lined up. We are also enjoying it. This film has been five years in the making. Finishing our first feature film is the hardest thing. This one more so because this is a very low budget film and we funded it ourselves. There were really no funds. But we wanted it that way because we wanted total control of the film. We are looking forward to the next chapter of where this is going to take us. The more people that see this film the better.
“It is a launch pad for all of us. I do not know if Janeva [Zentz] wants to continue acting but I hope she does,” Monihan adds. “We really do not come from this world at all. We know lots of creative, artistic people but nobody on the industry side of the film world. It’s a lot of fun but it is also very scary and exciting,” he says.
Was there any hesitation in making his first feature?
I was not hesitant. If you allow yourself to be hesitant you will never make it. You will hear a lot of filmmakers say this as the best advice to young filmmakers, “get out there and start shooting, just go and do it.” Talk minus action equals zero, like how the band D.O.A says. We were not fearful. We knew we were setting up a big hurdle for ourselves by setting up a crazy idea of a silent film and no dialogue. We were more concerned about how we can actually pull it off, will it actually work because we do not have a crew, a budget? They are all friends. Everybody gave up their free time to come and do this. When people are willing to do that then you do not have a choice, then you just have to do it. We felt confident going into it because of that.
I had heard from the festival team that Monihan was traveling quite a bit around Mumbai. I ask if he was looking for possible shoot locations.
I definitely have stories that I would want to make here. We have very good friends here. (Matheiken has roots in India) Once you live in New York, where else could I live? It is the most international city. There are very few places you can go to after New York but Bombay is definitely one of them. It is crazier here. This town makes New York feel like a ghost town so we really love it. There is a million stories out there that can be told and I want to one day definitely tell one of them.
It is the last day of the festival and as I am leaving, Monihan, Zentz, and Matheiken are heard making plans for the rest of the stay in the city. At the closing ceremony later that evening, it is an excited trio who receive the Young Critics Jury Award.
Note: Watch for a general release of this film in spring 2015.