What’s it like to grow up with a sibling? That’s an experience most Chinese children never knew while living under China’s one-child policy. But director, writer and stop-motion animator Siqi Song was one of the rare little sisters who knew the answer when all her friends would ask.
“I always feel lucky, because I was not supposed to exist,” Song says, recounting how she drew from her own life to craft her animated short film Sister, in which an older brother imagines how his life would have been different if he’d in fact had a sister.
“I interviewed my brother a lot,” she says. “The story has an annoying little sister because I know that’s what my brother told me he felt about me. Well, he wouldn’t say it to me, but he would to everybody but me.”
Song notes that most of her Western friends have asked her what it was like growing up in China during that period of history, and she finds her friends’ curiosity striking. “They always want to know how my parents were able to have me,” she says.
For purposes of this interview, Song said she could provide the answer, but she would be concerned about her parents. “They still live in China, and it may cause some trouble. But I’ve known since I was a kid that they sacrificed for me, because they tell me a lot. They’d always tell me when they were trying to push me to work harder or study harder,” Song says with a knowing laugh.
When the one-child policy was eradicated in 2015, Song was an animation student at CalArts, after having studied fine arts at a Chinese college. “I thought, ‘This is the end of an era that only our generation has experienced,’ ” she says. “We are facing a different future now. We’d always thought we could only have one kid, but most of my friends and family are getting married and are considering having kids. We have more options now. The world has totally changed.”
And while she spent time scouring Chinese social media for research and sought out friends to interview about their own experiences with the one-child policy, she was very nervous to tell her own story in such a personal way. “But one of my teachers told me, ‘The more fragile you feel when you’re making the film, the more sincere the story that comes out from you.’ “
This sensitivity encouraged friends to open up the conversation during interviews, including her CalArts peer Bingyang Liu, who voices the older brother in the short. Song had never considered using her own brother’s voice because “that would be a lie. He has a sister.”
Rather, her schoolmate told her how, when he was 4 years old, he was supposed to have a little sister. But she was never born.
“The second half of the film was based on his experience that he told me,” Song says. “I thought at the beginning, ‘Maybe I should hire an actor.’ But I wanted him to narrate the film because that’s part of his story, too. I think the film is more sincere because of it.”
Song has shown her family the film and hopes they join her as her dates to the Oscars on Feb. 9, if they are able to make the trip. “I made this film to show gratitude, as a thank-you for having me. I hope they think now that they made a great decision, that I turned out well. And it’ll be Chinese New Year during the Oscars, so it’ll be a double celebration.”
Delphine Girard didn’t need to blow out her birthday candles to get her wish this year. On the eve of her 30th birthday, the writer-director of A Sister received the call that her live-action short had been nominated for an Oscar. “I had gone to the sea, like, ‘OK, I’m off. I know the decision is today, but that’s life,’ ” she says of taking a beach vacation around the nomination’s announcement. “Then I was eating some fish when I got the call! I couldn’t ever have wished for something like that.”
A Sister (Une Soeur) tells of the connection between two women — one an emergency operator and the other a woman in dire need of help after an abusive encounter in a car with a man. Girard was inspired by a recording she stumbled across of an American emergency phone call in which “a woman in a car pretends to call a sister, but actually calls 911.”
That relationship between strangers stayed with Girard for months before she put pen to paper. “I knew it was going to be like a thriller, but what really interested me was that idea of empathy and how you can be linked to someone for 15 minutes but with such intensity.”
A former actress, Girard found Veerle Baetens, her emergency dispatcher, on a film set. “I was a child coach for the young actor who played her son,” Girard tells THR. In preparation for the film, which shot in Belgium in February 2018, the two visited a real call center to gain insight. “They told us the most difficult part of their work was that they never had the end of the story with people,” she says. “They will have somebody at their worst moment asking for help, but after they hang up, they don’t know what happened.”
The idea to always shoot behind the couple in the car was tactful, in order to evoke “the cold fear of what it’s like to be in those kinds of situations, to be in the car with her [Alie, played by Selma Alaoui]. In a way, it gives the audience the opportunity to be a bit like the operator, who doesn’t see exactly what is happening. She’s trying to understand, and she projects about the matter in the car.”
Girard intentionally left out the couple’s backstory onscreen so that viewers could form their own opinions, but the actors were well-informed of the history they were playing. “We knew how often the two had met when you first see them, and there was a bit more in the script than in the final short. But it was a question between my editor [Damien Keyeux] and me when we were editing, thinking, ‘Maybe it’s more interesting to let people project their own idea of what this couple is about.’ “
At screenings, audience members would go up to Girard, confident that they knew the couple’s story. “They’d say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re a married couple and that’s about violence in families.’ Some other people would say, ‘Oh, they just met.’ I really like that these people can discuss their own visions of violence, not only mine.”
But one aspect of the film that Girard was adamant about was that the two actresses would never meet during filming. “We thought it’d be interesting for them not to know who the person would be that they’re talking to. You never know if it will affect the quality of the film, but I like to believe it does,” she says. “When they finally met at the end of shooting, it was really moving. They were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect you to be like this,’ and they just fell into each other’s arms.”
A younger sister herself, Girard considers bonds between women paramount in her own life. “I think women have experienced things, some type of violence, for a long time. And they’re together in that. I think sometimes there’s a lack of communication between men and women about that.”
In fact, Girard wrote her script just before the Harvey Weinstein case broke open, with the #MeToo movement informing production and conversations surrounding the film since. “There have been men who come up to me, telling me, ‘I recognize myself in the male character,’ and that was really weird for me,” she says. “But I don’t think he realizes at all what he is putting her through. I think there is a systemic problem about that. And that’s why we need to tell these stories.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.