By: Emma Johnston
Radio-television-film senior Tani Shukla fiddles with her hair when she’s thinking intently, repetitively sideswiping her bangs and straightening them out again as she speaks. She’s discussing Perdóname, a film she wrote and directed that is currently in pre-production.
The film is about Oscar and Isabella, a brother and sister who travel from Mexico to Texas in search of opportunity. But Oscar’s cancer returns. Still unable to afford the last round of treatment and not wanting to live through that suffering again, Oscar asks Isabella to help him die peacefully, seriously placing her at odds with her Catholic faith.
SMEAR sat down with Shukla to discuss the film.
SMEAR: Why did you decide to write this story? Where did it come from?
Shukla: I really wanted to do something with religion because I’ve had a lot of personal issues with faith and what I believe in. There was a point in my life where I was terrified of the afterlife for no reason, but through that, I learned a lot about what other people believe in and why faith helps them.
There’s a lot of different things in this script I’m trying to play on: that religion isn’t always so black and white, you know? Sometimes people make sacrifices when it comes to their faith when they’re dealing with family issues, and it’s just a matter of how do you decide what’s right and what’s wrong, and are you willing to sacrifice what you believe in to help someone else? I think it’s okay to make those sacrifices when needed, but that’s not for me to say for everyone. Everyone is different.
In addition to that, I just want to touch on the brotherly-sisterly relationship, which I feel like I don’t see a lot in film, and I wanted to have representation of non-white people. I was thinking that at least in Mexico, the Catholic faith is a pretty big deal. That’s kind of where it all came together.
S: What’s special to you about the brother/sister relationship?
Sh: I think sibling relationships are interesting and I don’t really see them explored a lot in film, like on a deeper level, and I hope I can reach that with this film. I have two little brothers. They’re five and six years younger than me, but I feel so close to them without even having to really see them or hear from them for months. With most of my friends, I have to keep up with them a lot. And even my parents. But with my brothers, I notice that it’s a different sort of understanding and love. But also there is a disconnect there when you’re male and female siblings. It’s harder to relate, and I’m hoping maybe once they’re a little bit older I’ll be able to relate to them more. But at this point it’s a little interesting. I’m trying to incorporate a little bit more of the emotions I have with my brothers because, although this film has serious subject matter, I want to incorporate some levity, some humor, some brother-sister joking around.
S: You talked about representation of minorities. Were you worried about writing a film about another culture?
Sh: A lot of people say that you can only do a film if you’re writing what you know and doing what you know, but I think that there are certain cases where you can do research and you can really get to know a community that maybe you’re not aware of. And as long as you do the research and you’re giving adequate representation in the film then I think it’s ok to do that film. I’m just trying to do something that’s a little bit more representative of this area of Texas—the Hispanic and Latino community in Austin itself is beautiful. I’m just trying to do more justice to them.
S: You’re doing this film in Spanish even though you’re not fluent. Why?
Sh: I never really see foreign language films in general being produced by students—it can be daunting, but I think that we need a little bit more representation coming out of UT filmmaking.
So I was showing it to my producer, Gabi, and she was like, ‘this should really be in Spanish. And I was like, ‘Yeah, duh! You’re right!’ When I started thinking about that, I was like, ‘Ok, damn! I’m gonna be directing in a language I’m not fluent in, how am I gonna do this?’ But this is just the right way to tell this story. So I basically have surrounded myself with a crew of people that are fluent in Spanish. My director of photography speaks Spanish, my casting director speaks Spanish; I have line producers, and then I have a bunch of other people on set who speak Spanish, and they’re helping me. What’s good is that I know in the script what’s translated and I know on a basic level what they’re saying. We had auditions and it was very easy to direct in English and then have them do it in Spanish. It was really fun, I actually liked it a lot better. And the script just sounds so much better in Spanish than English.
S: Diverse representation is clearly very important to you. Is representation of women in film an issue for you?
Sh: Definitely. There is a very distinct lack of women writers or directors doing thesis films or more advanced production. It’s very concerning that many women subconsciously feel like they can’t. I’ve just seen a lot of situations where women are talked down to. I’ve been talked down to like I don’t know what I’m doing, like I’m a dummy. It’s really unnecessary, but you can’t let it get to you. Maybe they’re right! Maybe you don’t know what you’re doing, but you just stand up for yourself. I feel like the more we’re patronized, the more we get this sense that we can’t do it.
I also feel like a lot of the times in those early classes, women are kind of put down because they don’t have groups that they’re always working with. When you’re in a narrative class, everyone has to write a script and we all vote on the ones we want to make. I’ve just noticed in those situations, when they’re picking teams, there are dude groups that form, like ‘This is my buddy, I’ve worked with him a bunch so I’m just gonna work with him!’ And women, I’ve noticed, don’t really have girl groups where they’re always working together. We like to work with everyone and not limit ourselves to just the same group of people. So since we work differently, it’s always difficult to really put your name out there and be like, ‘I really want to work with you, I will shoot your movie, it will be great.’ I just hope that more women try to direct their own things more, put there own voice out there, or shoot movies, or be the director of photography and don’t be scared.