ShortList 2018: ‘Agua Vida’ Director on Telling a Chinese Immigrant’s Story in the Trump Era (Video)

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Alexa Lim Haas credits President Trump in part for spurring her to make the most of her prescient animated short “Agua Vida,”a finalist in TheWrap’s seventh annual ShortList Film Festival.

Lim Haas began working on the film — about the daily routine of a Chinese immigrant woman who works in a nail salon in Florida — nearly two years ago, just before the 2016 presidential election.

“It felt different after Trump got elected,” she told TheWrap. “It became motivation, and I felt activated to make it more.” 

Lim Haas, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, said much of “Agua Vida” is based on the experiences of her family members, particularly those who work in service industries. “I’m just really interested in what they think about and what they do, because their routine is so repetitive, day to day,” she said.

She was also interested in the linguistic struggles that many of her family members experience with native English speakers, including younger relatives. “We would have conversation without language, it would be gestural conversations or smiles and warm pats on the back,” she said. “A lot of the film is about what it’s like to be inside of a body and the feeling of not being able to express what’s inside of you.”

In 2016, Lim Haas received a “No Bro Zone” grant from the Borscht Corporation in Miami, a female-driven funding program. She then began traveling to different nail salons in New York, Miami and Philadelphia to speak with workers and learn about their routines and inner lives.

At the same time, she was writing, storyboarding and animating the film, a “very lonely” process that lasted nearly 15 months. “I made it largely solo, and it was just me in a room in my apartment for about a year, just animating away,” she said. “The largest challenge was just waking up every day and doing the same thing every day.”

As she made the film, Lim Haas felt compelled to address the discourse of the Trump era. “There’s such rhetoric from many sides, as Trump says. Words are very meaningful, and sometimes we’re just having semantic battles across the lines.”

While reactions to the film have been mostly positive, one scene has triggered surprise and some walkout:  an up-close and personal view of a woman getting a Brazilian wax. “People aren’t used to seeing female parts in a non-sexual way, and in more conservative towns, people will walk out,” she said. “It really shakes people for some reason.”

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