Resident Video 23: Lingua Absentia

Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month, we bring you Kate Raney and Jeremy Bessoff’s Lingua Absentia.

Amongst Hollywood’s copious issues of misrepresentation are the negative, inaccurate portrayals of people with mental illness as monsters, metaphorical and literal. From Psycho to American Psycho, these detrimental depictions of mania and murder dominate the horror and thriller genres. Although steps have been taken to disrupt these stereotypes (at least in order to win an Academy Award), this year’s early box office hit Split proves that mental illness continues to serve as an effective tool for scaring audiences.

But rather than continue the trend, Kate Raney and Jeremy Bessoff’s Lingua Abesntia does something scarier; it depicts mental illness as it is. Guided by the mother’s voice-over narration, the docu-style short engages the viewer in Abby’s struggle with her schizophrenia and her severe cancer treatment to remove her tongue. In order to generate a deeper understanding of Abby’s relationship with her schizophrenia, the directors employ a mixture between traditional animation and stop-motion to create abstract illustrations that the detached viewer can interpret and interact with. The result is a visual and emotional tour de force that defies convention. Through alternating, contrasting perspectives from Abby and her mother, Lingua Absentia presents Abby as a daughter, patient, and teenager, but never a monster.

In the interview down below, we discuss with directors Raney and Bessoff the mechanics of Abby’s representation, their first-time collaborative process, and much more.

This is your first collaboration together, how has it been working together? Since both of you have a background in mixing digital and traditional animation, was it easy to combine your visual talents or was it a difficult process trying to find a singular vision for the film?

It’s been great working together. This project was a fine one to combine our styles and interests. There are different aspects of production that we each prefer, so it was so splitting up the filmmaking responsibilities happened organically. Creatively, Jeremy is more meticulous and plotted with his imagery where Kate is more prone to experimentation and flights of Busby Berkeley inspired dance numbers. I think the only bugs in the system were when we both had a separate but distinct vision for a scene and we had to productively solve the conflict instead of getting divorced.  We did a lot of talking through stuff.  I think working collaboratively has forced us to articulate things that are normally only internal, abstract thoughts.

As opposed to her colorful, psychedelic environment, Abby is drawn devoid of color. What influenced this stylistic choice and how does it play into the abstraction of Abby as a character that viewers can more than just identify with, but rather interact with?

When we first started figuring out how to visualize the story, we wanted to have a clear distinction between what was grounded reality and what were her schizophrenic, internal thoughts. We decided to keep the “real world” scenes bare-bones, stark. This is the opposite of most animation color theory, where the colorful characters stand out against a less detailed background.  We were looking at some of Dorothea Lange’s depression era photographs and thinking about her starkness and the focus on faces and textures, but often in flattened space.

During the pre-production phase, we were thinking of the film as taking on a horror form. For inspiration, we made our way through Cronenberg’s film catalog, attempting to replicate his sense of body horror. It’s rather delightful and weirdly satisfying to listen to the audience squirm uncomfortably during Abby’s “thought-scapes.” Dario Argento’s Suspiria made its way into our inspiration gallery as well.  It has such a bright color palette while still being dark as hell. We decided on a hallucinogenic color palate for the backgrounds to tease out an intoxicating affect. At one time, we tested a scene with more detail in the puppet drawings and with color, but they competed for attention with the backgrounds. The monochromatic characters generate an inverted contrast between Abby’s perceived reality and a sparse depiction of the “real world”.

This industrial sound design for Lingua Absentia is a uniquely unnerving experience that serves as the backbone for the mother’s haunting retelling of Abby’s cancer treatment. With both of you being very visual artists yourselves, how was the process of finding the right sound to accompany your surrealist imagery?

Jeremy: We knew from the beginning we didn’t want the movie to have a traditional sound design. We do use many diegetic sound effects throughout. In lieu of organized, melodic music, I wanted Abby’s world to be a collage of atonal noise.  I tried to imagine what it must be like having a constant barrage of information hurled at you that you can’t quite make sense of. It would be hard to concentrate on a single though … Like Harrison Bergeron’s audio appliances and hobbling weights in Vonnegut’s short story. The overwhelming aural onslaught gives the piece an ungrounded, sense of confusion.

Since I’m not much of a musician, I needed to work with someone who could pull off the cacophony I imagined.  My friend, the sound artist Will Soderberg, had the creative and technical skills to mix the right audio concoction.  He set up an inspired amalgam of sound making devices and performed them live, while watching the animations.  I think he did 6 or 7 variations on the whole piece.  I then dropped in the segments of the individual takes I thought fit best with the scene.  It’s really exciting to get the right sound and image to function together. You know it works when what you see and what you hear start moving like a smooth machine.

Throughout the film we see Abby struggling to deal with her schizophrenia while her mother and doctor only attend to her physical ailments. How did this disconnect between Abby and her aides influence your depiction of her and how does this depiction compare to traditional portrayals of people suffering from mental illness?

Kate: I actually feel like I haven’t seen that many works that portray mental illness well. I think the mainstream depictions I’ve seen are more likely to cause fear and criminalization of the mentally ill instead of trying to actually understand and empathize. For us it was really important to portray her as someone who processes thought very differently. She sometimes frames her experiences in ways that are not logical and you cannot apply logical thought to. Her level of paranoia and her delusions make her question whether or not she can trust the people around her and what they tell her. We wanted to show how isolating that is. I think, also that causes her to shut herself off from typical acts of compassion. So, trying to hug her may be too much for her. The thing that I always notice with my mom is her immense amount of patience when interacting with Abby and also her sensitivity to what actions might overwhelm Abby. My mom actually worked for many years as a nurse on the psychiatric ward, so I think that informs how she approaches her.


Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain until our servers dissolve.

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