Interview Tamil

The stories come to us somehow, says Franziska Schönenberger about her film Rettai Jadai

Schönenberger, whose film is being screened at the Bengaluru International Short Film Festival, talks about her choice of subjects and her work with husband and collaborator Jayakrishnan Subramanian.

Franziska Schönenberger and Jayakrishnan Subramanian

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The Tamil short film Rettai Jadai (The Girl With The Red Ribbons) presents a heartwarming tale of friendship between two girls who support each other and find circumstances a little lighter to bear through the bond that they share.

The title of the film, directed by Franziska Schönenberger and Jayakrishnan Subramanian, refers to the hairstyle of double braids. The protagonist, Viru, wants her unruly hair to be tidy and pretty like her friend Bhanu’s neatly braided and beautifully decorated hair. Though from very different backgrounds, Viru and Bhanu share a beautiful bond and see each other through difficult moments.

The short film was inspired by the friendship between Jayakrishnan's mother and her childhood friend, Banu. Incidentally, Banu features in the film as the grandmother braiding the hair of the fictional character playing her younger self.

Speaking of how the story came about, Schönenberger said, “She [Jayakrishnan's mother] was talking about her childhood and narrated the story about the ribbons, that she always wanted to be like her friend. Jaya and me were talking about it and I told him it is such a cute story and reminds me of a fairy tale and it would be lovely to do a film about it. Then we started to think about it, so it was just an idea.

"Meanwhile, my mother-in-law read an article about a girl in Tamil Nadu who committed suicide after she was shamed in front of her class because of a bloodstain on her uniform. While reading that, she started talking to us about her own experience from her schooldays. Somehow it all connected to the story of the film.”

Although Schönenberger and Jayakrishnan are from culturally different backgrounds, the story has universal appeal. “This [the story] resonated with me and I was very interested that the film has the things that resonate with young girls in Germany," she said. "The only thing was the completely different approach to the topic of menstruation. Even in Germany, although when I was in school we all knew about it and even had a competition about who will get their period first, and bought tampons together, stuff like this was only around girls. I know a lot of men even now who have a problem with menstruation. Even in Germany and in Western countries. I find it so annoying that it has [become] something gross or problematic and no one is respecting it that you have this PMS [pre-menstrual syndrome] or there are these days when you feel like shit.These things I found interesting.”

A still from Rettai Jadai

The story deploys animation at certain moments to depict the thoughts and emotions of the girls. Explaining the choice of form, Schönenberger said, “In all our films, we have used some animation because Jaya is a graduate from NID [National Institute of Design], Ahmedabad, and he comes from the visuality of art, and I studied documentary filmmaking, so I am more the storyteller.

"I come from a writing background, so for me the focus is more on the story. Jaya is much more creative when it comes to visual storytelling. We were thinking about how to convey the feelings of the girls, especially when she feels suicidal. I felt it would not be done that nicely with real images. Also, how you can show the friendship and the escape both of them have, their thoughts which are free? Obviously, animation is a handy tool to show these kind of things, and it has been part of all of our films, so it comes naturally to us.

“Animation is also a tool you can use alone. So, production-wise, it adds value and looks beautiful and you can do it after [the film] is shot,” she added.

Navigating animation, fiction and documentary allows the couple to tell stories in innovative ways. “We are working on a film about an arranged marriage which is based on an incident that happened in Munich about a couple and dowry and arranged marriage. This incident made headlines and was on the radio. What we are doing most of the time is something between documentary and fiction.”

Rettai Jadai was premiered in Germany and has been screened at festivals across the world. “We made the film for German television and German children and really wanted to show it in India," the director said. "The only sad part is that we could not travel to the screening because it was all online.

"The response was really, really nice, I felt, but my major thing is that the actors in the film, the children, have never seen the film in a theatre. This is what I am wanting to do.”

Thinking through the themes that excite them as filmmakers, Schönenberger said, “We found that all the things we are interested in as a couple are about family-related issues, somehow. All the stories so far have come from our family. Also, the relationship between couples interests us. I am interested in the coming-of-age process of girls.

"For me, it’s important to have this female perspective. We made another short film which we just finished shooting before the pandemic. It was also at Toronto, called My Mirror. It’s about a young Indian wife who discovers TikTok as a medium to liberate herself. It’s also a relationship story.

“The stories somehow come to us and we think about what is the adequate way of turning them into films. I also do a lot of radio, audio plays, and that’s also a handy form. I think it’s cool to not get yourself put into boxes. At least we try not to [be boxed].”

Rettai Jadai was screened at the International Film Festival of South Asia, Toronto, from 12–22 August and is being screened in the Indian Competition section at the Bengaluru International Short Film Festival which begins today and ends on 5 September.

Related topics

Bengaluru International Short Film Festival IFFSA