In Conversation With: Sebastián Bisbal Rivas

Sebastián Bisbal Rivas is a filmmaker, graphic designer and director. He is the producer and animator of Shelby Hadden’s award-winning documentary Tightly Wound about the director’s personal experiences with vaginismus. The film continues to screen around the world, including at the upcoming Feminist Film Week at New York’s Anthology Film Archives.

Bisbal Rivas is also the animator of “My Cathartic Release,” a segment from director/editor Maggie M. Bailey’s BDSM-themed anthology Sweet Sweet Kink. The film, which features animation from Alex Bugg, Aaron Chavez, Cris Magliozzi, and Hazel O’Neil), will have its World Premiere in the Texas Shorts Competition at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

Ahead of Sweet Sweet Kink’s premiere, Bisbal Rivas spoke with Sean L. Malin from Chile, where he is in post-production on his latest film as writer/director, Start With a Song. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

CineMalin: Independent filmmakers often tell me that making a movie requires calling in favors from your friends, but I don’t know if that is possible with animation because of the skills it requires. Did you find that, in making Tightly Wound and getting it seen, you were required to ask such favors? Or were you yourself satisfying a favor for the director, Shelby Hadden, when you took on the job?

Sebastián Bisbal Rivas: From the very beginning, Shelby had the goal for this project to be a full-time job for me (which I will always be thankful for), so I could focus 100% on animating the film for a long period of time. We needed to have the film done in less than a year and I was the only animator. Animation is so time-consuming that it is almost impossible to do it as a favor in our free time, unless you want to do art for years. But, yes, we asked favors of people who read the script, or watched cuts and gave feedback, which is pretty standard in our industry. Also, there were people who helped producing or fundraising the film. Shelby gave them Associate Producer credits.

CM: Most filmmakers who go to graduate film school, like you and Hadden, already have some experience in making movies before they ever step into the classroom. Is that true of you? What kind of work did you usually gravitate towards as an early filmmaker?

SBR: Yes, I went to film school in undergrad, where I experimented with animation and narrative fiction films. My undergrad thesis is a mixture of both languages. And before going to grad school at UT Austin, I worked as a motion graphics artist and in animation for 5 years, so going back to film school was a great opportunity to experiment again with Narrative Fiction and step out of my comfort zone.

Before the program my work tended to gravitate into surreal and fantastic stories in mundane settings, pretty much like playing with the fantastic and the absurd of what normal, daily life could have. Also, lots of sci-fi. But now, my work is tending to gravitate into realism and dramas. I think that is because the world is getting too complicated and absurd; but also because now that I’m not as young I have been, I appreciate stories with highly humanistic content, that dig into the complicated nuances of human nature (but that’s something that could be explored in any genre).

Also, I realized [at some point] that it is better to have projects that are approachable and not insane to make, which can happen with realistic dramas. My current film, Start With A Song (produced by the Austin-based company Lost Trail Productions, and in post-production at this very moment), is a narrative short about two teenage kids who are trying to write a song, but in the middle of one of the sessions, they need to escape unwelcome visitors – shifting from a High School Comedy to a dark and sad Drama, something that I’ve never done before.

But those are two genres that I love. It is very interesting that my future projects for narrative film are mostly realistic, but the future projects that I have for animation (the ones I’m directing, not freelancing for) tend more into the personal essay, more poetic, minimalistic and kind of in the realm of the visual arts. One of my friends told me that I’m leaning towards that because it’s a way to use these art forms in a way I can play with different elements, using the particularities of each format, and I thought that was very interesting. Since I’m a person of two worlds (animation and narrative fiction), my work tends to go back-and-forth between these topics and media. I’m also a huge graphic novel fan, so probably I’ll jump into that sometime soon.

CM: In a separate conversation, we discussed the way that Chilean film has gained fame over the last 15 years in the American arthouse. But what about the American arthouse in Chile: is there a strong place for American independent film in Chile outside of, say, Santiago?

SBR: I would say the city of Valdivia, in the south of Chile. There’s a great film festival there, where I have seen amazing films from all over the world. North American arthouse films here don’t get played as much as we would like because the distribution companies just don’t purchase them to be played here. And outside of Santiago is even harder, even considering the fact that there’re a few arthouse cinemas. We only get a portion of what the North American market offers. Most films I’m able to watch are on VOD rentals, platforms or when they are available on home video, but that’s not that bad.

CM: Before those 15 years, when you were growing up, did you have filmmaking heroes who were specifically Chilean, rather than more broadly South or Central American? Are any of them still strong inspirations for the work you make today?

SBR: Well, 15 years ago I wasn’t as educated in film, because 2003 was the year I entered film school. My knowledge of films that weren’t mainstream was very limited, but I was lucky to grow up with amazing mainstream films. During the ’90s and early ‘2000s, it was hard to watch Chilean films, and most of the market was purely North American and European. But Raul Ruíz is always a great name to say, because he is probably our most important filmmaker, and of course he has been a great influence in my work because is a director who was always exploring the surreal elements of daily life and reality. I would say Andrés Wood has been a big influence as well, who was important even before the explosion of the Chilean Industry we have had in the last 15 years.

CM: As someone who lived in Austin for half a decade, I often encounter people who work within the same community of two or three dozen people, over and over and over again. I’ve sometimes heard this called the “Austin Mafia”. If such a community exists, would you consider yourself a part of it after half a decade living, studying, and working there?

SBR: I honestly don’t know. I would say that I was an Austin based filmmaker when I was at school and I tried to be active in the community, but after I came back to Chile in 2016 (even though I was traveling back and forth between Chile and Austin for the last 2 years) I realized that I’m a Chilean filmmaker, who is also an Austin filmmaker. Now that I’m gone, it has been a bit harder to keep those connections alive, although if I get the chance to make films back in Austin, I know exactly who to call and collaborate with.

As an example, about a month ago I collaborated on a piece with Hailey Lauren, a dance performer and choreographer (also a great actor) on a performance piece where I did the animations to be projected while Hailey was dancing. It was a great experience and everything was made from a distance. This is something that I love about animation: it gives you the opportunity to collaborate with people from two distant places.

I also collaborated on another animated documentary short film, Sweet Sweet Kink, directed by Maggie Bailey, where I animated one of the segments of the film. Everything was made here in Chile and it also worked great. Another thing I love about this connection I have with both places is that I think there’s a similar ethos in the way we produce and make things in Chile and Austin, so it is not hard at all to have one leg in both places.

Courtesy Sweet Sweet Kink

Courtesy Sweet Sweet Kink

CM: What kind of financial and social support have your film projects received from the city of Austin and organizations specific to local filmmakers there?

SBR: Tightly Wound received the Austin Film Society Grant and ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign. We also received donations from physical therapists which helped a lot. Shelby did a fantastic job fundraising the film. Start with a Song, the short that I’m finishing now, was financed by the company who is producing the film. We have grants available from the Chilean government, but I haven’t been awarded those grants yet for projects produced in Chile.

CM: And how does financial support in Austin compare to the financial support you have sometimes received as a Chilean filmmaker?

SBR: I would say that the means are different, but the struggle is the same. Since we don’t have many private investors in Chile, we rely 100% on government grants, international grants, or co-productions. So we have more public money but the competition is very high. In the US there isn’t much public funding, but there’re more investors who, most of the times, are difficult to get. So give and take, is just very hard everywhere.

CM: Over the last year of touring with Tightly Wound, what kind of response have you gotten from audiences personally? And since beginning to tour the festival circuit, what has the fanbase been like in terms of who you hear from or what you see online more widely?

SBR: The response has been amazing. It’s incredible hearing comments from people saying how much useful they think the film is and how thankful they are that Shelby was brave enough to share her story, so people don’t feel alone anymore about the condition portrayed in the film, which people don’t talk about. It feels great to know that the film has a utility for the people, a usefulness that is rare to find in this media. And that was the main purpose that Shelby wanted with the film, educate, keep company, create community and make visible this problem.

CM: The film deals with a condition that women around the world suffer from – vaginismus – but different societies have different relationships to talking about or addressing this condition. Where in the world has the short resonated most strongly with its audience in your opinion, and do you know why?

SBR: Sadly I have been only able to be to the screening in Annecy. But the response there was amazing, and people connected with the film very strongly. After the projection of the film, Shelby got an ovation that was indescribable. Maybe in France talking about intimate topics is less difficult? I honestly don’t know. I think there are a lot of similarities of how we perceive sexuality between Chile and the US, and it always comes from repression (religious, social, etc).

It was very interesting to see how the film was getting accepted more in Europe than in the US, in terms of festivals, and it probably has to do with that. Also, we have a hybrid format (animated documentary) that is not very common, but it’s getting more popular now than ever. Also, Annecy Animated Film Festival was promoting personal stories, made by women, so we were able to see that we were not alone in the topics and styles of telling these kind of stories. Nevertheless, the response in the US and in Chile has been great too.

CM: Has your work on that project led to new professional gigs for you over the last year, whether it’s from meeting people on your journeys or from those who heard about the film through press?

SBR: Right after I finished my work on Tightly Wound I started doing Sweet Sweet Kink which had a lot of similarities with Tightly Wound, since it is a collection of stories about the BDSM community in Austin. Maggie (also a Film MFA student at UT) came to me because she heard about Tightly Wound, and she wanted to give a compassionate look at this community which is often ridiculed and judged; and that was a very attractive pitch to me, because it was the same approach I had for Tightly Wound. Shelby joked about it and told me that I’m a “Sex Positive Animator”. As a result, working on Sweet Sweet Kink was great and hopefully the film will do great. The segment I did won the “Best Kink Award” at HUMP! Adult Film Festival.

CM: As someone with an MFA in Film Production, do you take an academic approach to work and incorporate film theory into your projects as an animator, producer, director, etc.?

SBR: I try to, and it’s great to have that approach, but I also learned that instinct and the emotional aperture to our work are crucial as well. Sometimes I get caught in the academic minutia, and I remember that that’s one side of our craft. The other side is that annoying thing that we can’t explain well, but it just feels right or wrong. I always love to say that that is the perfect balance between art and science.

A scene from Start With A Song.

CM: Do you consider yourself a freelancer, professionally? How do you make your bread-and-butter? Do you see yourself specializing in animation in the film industry going forward with gigs for other people, or are you more likely to veer only to jobs directing, or producing, or writing?

SBR: Yes, I am a freelance artist. From animation to film (sometimes illustration too, but that’s more than a job for me). As I said before, I love going back and forth between animation and narrative film. I learn from both art forms and I try to apply to knowledge back-to-back. I think my style in animation is very naturalistic and not as cartoonish, and my style in filmmaking is stylized. And just as I love directing and writing, I love working as animator for projects as well.

CM: What’s next down the road for you in terms of new projects in Chile and in the US? And do you see those projects as separate from one another – made for separate audiences and industries, never to cross paths; or do those projects all have something clearly in common?

SBR: In Chile, I’m trying to make a narrative feature, but it’s in very early stages. Also, I have a couple of personal animated shorts that I’ve been postponing and I think it’s time to just make them. Also, we’re getting ready for distribution for Start With A Song – hopefully it’ll play in some film festivals. Finally, with Shelby, we’re in early stages of developing Tightly Wound’s sequel, [currently] titled Winning My Virginity. Probably the feature that I’m planing to do will be produced here in Chile, but I would love to be able to co-produce it with other countries.

As a director, I don’t have projects in the U.S. right now, but I would love to direct something there again in the future. It was one the most gratifying experiences of my life. All the work that I do is planned to be played everywhere, for everyone, so hopefully people in the U.S. and Latin America will get the stories I’m trying to tell, so I feel I could make films everywhere, for everyone, and I love feeling like that.

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