Director of photography Jimmy Gimferrer speaks about the shooting of "Tiger Stripes", by Amanda Nell Eu

Sister Tiger, by François Reumont, for the l’AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°343

[ English ] [ français ]

A film about young "ware-wolf" tiger girls ? Yes, that’s how Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes could be presented. This debut film from Malaysia opened the competition at the Critics’ Week, with great enthusiasm from both its crew and the audience. Its cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer (Story of My Death - Histoire de ma mort by Albert Serra in 2013) talks to us about it... (FR)

Zaffan, 12, lives in a small rural community in Malaysia. In the throes of puberty, she realises that her body is changing at an alarming rate. Her friends turn their backs on her when a mass hysteria attack hits the school. Fear spreads and a doctor intervenes to remove the demon haunting the girls. Like a tiger harassed and dislodged from its habitat, Zaffan decides to reveal her true nature, fury, rage and beauty.

Did you already know the director ?

Jimmy Gimferrer : No. Amanda wanted to work with a cinematographer who wasn’t necessarily from Malaysia. Fran Borgia (Akanga films), the Singapore co-producer, knew me and put us in touch. When we talked, we immediately got along. I was very excited to shoot a new film in Asia ; I’d only shot a documentary there, that I had very fond memories of. The “Tiger Stripes”’ scenario made it clear that we’d have a lot of fun making this film. And I like to have fun when I shoot a film !

Where did you shoot ?

JG : On the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, in a small village near the jungle. It was very representative of rural Malaysia, as it appeared in the film. It really reminded me of California - but in the jungle. Maybe the exoticism, and working far from home, created more confidence for the camera work ? I was stunned by the beauty of the place, the houses... even at night, sodium seemed more beautiful than at home ! In fact, I quickly decided to use natural light on location during the day, just working with frames covered in diffusion or blacks. We discovered Sanni Boy, who was an incredible asset on the film, and a legend among key grips in South-East Asia. A 2m tall Indian, he was always classy and always found a solution for every shot. I notably remember his invaluable help on all the sequences in the schoolyard, and the waterfall, often shot with the sun up high, in hard light. That light was definitely not as pretty as the one you see in the film.

Tournage de la scène de la cascade
Tournage de la scène de la cascade

Is this a political film ?

JG : To explain things a little, Malaysia has three main communities. There are the Malays, who are Muslims. Then there are the Chinese and the Indians. Everyone has different religious backgrounds, and everyone mixes together, as can be seen, for example, in the school sequences. Only Muslim girls are required to wear the Toudong (the local hijab). Amanda, the director, who is of Chinese origin, always told me that her film would undoubtedly upset people... not especially about religion, but perhaps above all about education and the role of women. From this point of view, Amanda clearly wanted to make things happen in her country, but the film doesn’t have direct claims. Besides, Malaysia is a pretty cool country. It’s true that religion is very present, but you forget about it when you live there. The film’s cartoonish look helped get the message across. People will really laugh when the tiger girls attack the leading powers. Personally, I think it’s very positive !

Just like its opening sequence shows us, this film takes place in girls’ toilets quite a lot !

JG : Yes, we see more of the toilets than the classrooms. In the classroom we’re bored, and in the toilets we’re laughing ! Technically, it was quite complex, because we were shooting on location. Only two tiny inlets of natural light were available... and there was almost no room to set up the spotlights. And in the context of a film that isn’t meant to be very realistic. Erik Meurice, my gaffer, helped me a lot. I really liked these sequences, especially one of the last ones, after Zaffan disappeared and Maryam announces to Farah that she’s not coming back. It was backlit, which worked really well.

The film opens with a close-up of the protagonist looking into the camera....

JG : When Amanda and I started out, we wanted the film to be a mix between fake tropical realism, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s {} and chaotic chromaticism (Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria). This first shot, which recurs at least five times in the film, has been dubbed the "Sister Ruth" shot, in tribute to Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, another of our references. A marvellous shot lit at the time by Jack Cardiff. Every time we shot a scene with Za, we tried to film shots of her face in that spirit. It’s true that with the Turong, the girls suddenly take on a nun-like quality and the analogy with Powell’s film became clear.

Kathleen Byron dans "Le Narcisse noir", de Michael Powell (1947) - Image en Technicolor signée Jack Cardiff, BSC
Kathleen Byron dans "Le Narcisse noir", de Michael Powell (1947)
Image en Technicolor signée Jack Cardiff, BSC

What lenses did you work with ?

JG : I really like the Zeiss T2.1 series. These lenses are light and I’ve used them on lots of films. When we were doing close-ups, I generally used diopters, which had become a habit. I think it works quite well and I had never considered using a close focus lens. For this film, the rental company also offered me the 60mm macro lens, which is not included in the series - and which, incidentally, opens to T2.9. At first I didn’t see much use for it, but I decided to keep it... It’s a great lens, and I ended up using it for 70% of the film. It’s the perfect lens to use for face close-ups, but beyond its macro use, it really became love at first sight. It’s not a very sharp lens for wide shots, and it can be noticed in the film. What’s more, some shots were zoomed in a bit in post-production for editing reasons, and there it’s really obvious. Otherwise, for medium shots and of course close-ups, the focal length of this lens worked really well on the Amira we used. Its the equivalent of an 80mm in 24 by 36, which was great for close-ups. The relationship with perspective compression and blur worked really well with this 60mm, better than with the 85mm, a standard in the series. I thought it even better than the 50mm, which creates too much realism for me.

At times, the film uses tracking shots to underline the fantastic dimension of the story...

JG : I like Chris Menges. He’s a great British cinematographer who has also directed films. And he’s always so well dressed ! I remember reading one of his interviews, where he explained that the best in a film is to mix everything up on camera. Fixed shots, panning shots, tracking shots, hand-held camera... and let it all come together, let it all work naturally. Using everything in a single story, and for it to become coherent. I really believe that. At the start of my career, I was known for making films that were always down to earth, on stics, very composed, and anti-dynamic. On this film, we went for the opposite. We made it work, using what we had, trying to integrate tracking shots into the sequences for which that made sense. In the end, all the tracking shots we did were used and edited.

Let’s talk about the sequence with Dr Rahim and his attempt at exorcism....

JG : This was Tarantino-style cinema, with Robert Richardson-style lighting. This natural set was, for once, big enough for the 25 people needed on stage.
With two or three main lighting entries and a very long scene. At this point in the narrative, we were far enough in the story to allow ourselves to do anything, and to create a visually striking scene that seemed like the climax. Big contrasts, big light sources that deliberately moved away from realism. That scene took us 3 days to shoot, and we shot it from every angle. It was a real challenge, also in terms of the actors, both our protagonist and the character of Doctor Rahim. The latter is played by Shaeizy Sam, who could be compared to the Tom Cruise of Malaysia. Having a superstar on an independent film really stupefied the local team. At one point, my gaffer Erik Meurice came up to me and told me that there wasn’t a single flag left in the truck. We’d taken absolutely everything out for this scene !

The whites are quite diffused too...

JG : Initially, I wanted to work with Pro-Mist filters. Going full on from the start. These Zeiss T2,1s are actually quite soft, especially when used at full aperture. The highlights start to blotch, and it gives off a specific kind of colour range that I’d already used in the past. So I gave up on the Pro-Mist, and did everything during colour grading. At the end, the famous white Tudongs worn by the girls create a Virgin-Mary like halo. A Christian image in a Muslim world. Adding light to the image with this effect allowed me to give even more contrast at the colour grading, giving off a kind of warm tone that worked really well.

Who did you work with to colour-grade the film ?

JG : The post-production was done with Mathilde Delacroix, a wonderful French colourist whom I adore. She did a lot on the film. The waterfall set, in the jungle, for example, wasn’t actually very beautiful. She worked on the image and transformed the place, radically shifting away from documentary imagery. Shooting in Amira also helped us, creating a certain aestheticism specific to Arri images. However that didn’t stop us from choosing bizarre colours, such as yellow or cyan for the night shots in the jungle. But it’s fine as long as people understand that it’s taking place in the jungle.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont and translated from French by Chloé Finch, for the AFC)

Tiger Stripes
Director : Amanda Nell Eu
Script : Amanda Nell Eu
Editing : Carlo Francisco Manatad
Sound : Lim Ting Li
Production Designer : Sharon Chin
Music : Gabber Modus Operandi