in constant translation: w/ caroline mariko stucky
CAROLINE MARIKO STUCKY is a Swiss-Japanese filmmaker based in NYC, working in narrative, documentary, music video, commercial, and corporate films.
caroline’s personal work explores the various shifts and stages that constitute the movement towards empathy. as with any concept imbued with moral cachet, the temptation is to define empathy and reflexively judge one’s personal experiences relative to this definition. or perhaps worse, confirm one’s enactment of empathy based on said definition. which begs the question, is empathy a phenomenon that is even enactable? or rather, is it something that happens to you? like love, there’s something ineffably unconscious to the experience of empathy that logic and language fail to capture, that eludes definition. as expressed in her work, caroline doesn’t seek to define concepts such as love or empathy; rather, through her exploration of complex relationships, her films challenge and complicate our understanding of what it means to empathize, and to love.
growing up in switzerland: diverse yet homogenous
born and raised in switzerland, caroline grew up in a relatively diverse social environment. caroline explains: “switzerland is actually a country where there are a lot of foreigners. for example my classmates were swiss but their parents came from another european or eastern european or north african country, so it was very mixed.” caroline continues, explaining how despite this diversity of ethnic cultures, switzerland was still overwhelmingly racially homogenous: “they’re white. they are spanish, italian, french or german”. swiss citizens may be from all over europe, but caroline observed how ethnic groups would stay to themselves– “people don’t mix a lot with other cultures.”
all this made for an alienating childhood– especially for someone who is racially, culturally and sexually fluid. growing up, caroline didn’t know, nor hang out with, many people that were either mixed or gay at school. while her sexuality could be kept below the surface, her mixology couldn’t be masked. growing up, she would be bullied; not for being mixed, but simply for looking asian:
it’s interesting how caroline had her asian ‘side’ singled out– why do some people tend to see differences rather than similarities? after all, caroline has both asian and european features. why fixate on the asian features, and ignore what was european in her? it’s unfortunate. discriminating based on what is different simultaneously blinds one to shared commonalities. to be clear, just because we may recognize commonalities in one another, in no way does this amount to understanding the other person. but perhaps recognizing what we have in common is the bare minimum from which we can start understanding our differences.
not any better in japan
being bullied for her asian features led caroline to explore her mother’s japanese roots, so she moved to japan in search for some clarity. While in Japan, she found that the japanese were no more accepting of her than the swiss were. other than the expected sexism she experienced in the workplace, there was a new and peculiar kind of discrimination that she had to face daily. instead of openly pointing out her physical differences, the japanese pretended to ignore them. caroline recalls that despite being called ‘mariko’ (her japanese name), she was never treated like a japanese person. For example, while being called mariko might sound like a hospitable gesture– meant to be inclusive– for caroline it showed how her japanese co-workers simply imagined a version of her that was palatable for them, erasing who she was in actuality.
While her japanese co-workers were passive-aggressively antagonizing caroline for being of ‘two-halves’, they were also being two-faced themselves. as we explored previously, the ‘wa’ in japan creates and engenders in people a strangely distorted attitude towards a world that co-exists in dissonance with one’s held personal values.
caroline also observed how the japanese had double standards when it came to relating with homosexuality: “it’s very contradictory because there are some superstars who are gay or trans but if it's someone in your family who is gay it's shame on your family. so it's okay if it's somebody else that you don't know.” it’s fine so long as what’s different can be kept at arm’s length, gazed upon as a spectacle from afar; but, not fine if it hits too close to home. oftentimes, something as sacred as family can be a barrier that inhibits us from having empathy for those that fall outside of how we narrowly understand and define ‘family’ or tribe. to echo davy’s sentiment from our roguture feature, true individuality in the u.s. is rare because the pull towards group-identification is seemingly absolute– it’s so difficult for people to have an understanding of their own individualism that isn’t first tied to a group or tribe; since, after all, we grow up in these things called families. to be clear, we’re not advocating for the dissolution of family units, but only questioning the phenomena that inhibit empathy. and in caroline’s case, how family can represent an obstacle in the way of realizing empathy.
back to switzerland: feelings of resignation
"I wish I had all my questions answered after I lived in Japan but…I was at a point in my life when I accepted that I was maybe never gonna be able to come out, or never be able to be with somebody I was in love with, and I just lived with it. I guess I was just surviving ...there was a time when I accepted that I was not gonna be myself."
caroline’s twilight zone ride through japan ended with her back in switzerland, no better off than when she started. her feelings of hopelessness only compounded when she realized that coming out to her japanese mother would be potentially devastating. and while it was no big deal to her father, caroline recounts her mother’s refusal to accept that caroline was sexually fluid.
"...my mother and her friends would never believe i’m gay because they're japanese. they would never even dare talk about it, so my mother....she didn't really believe me; she said things like ‘it's just a phase, what you're feeling is friendship, it's not love’. I was not understanding of her reaction because I was really opening myself to her and she still thinks that one day I will fall in love with a man and get married and have children, even if I tell her, ‘no’.”
being bullied in switzerland, alienated in japan, and the object of her mother’s japanese biases against homosexuality, caroline’s euro-asian history was marked by perpetual marginalization and erasure. isolated and alienated within the white homogeneity of western europe, isolated and alienated in the wa-driven ethnocentrism of japan, she decided to venture in a new direction and head west to the u.s.
it was in harlem where she felt part of a community that included people from all walks of life. caroline found herself surrounded by artists and to her great surprise, was constantly being hit on in public by other women. talk about a turn of events. for the first time in her life she felt accepted and comfortable being herself.
caroline wasn’t in switzerland anymore– no longer tied to her father’s story; she wasn’t in japan anymore– no longer tied to her mother’s story… she was in harlem, in nyc, to write (and direct) her own story. caroline describes harlem as “a middle ground for people from different cultures to come and meet.” Caroline’s experience in harlem inspired her to process feelings of rejection, and longing for acceptance, in a language she felt most comfortable with– film.
film as universal language
growing up, the cinema was a home away from home for caroline. in switzerland, her uncle owned multiple movie theaters, so she was able to see movies for free to her heart’s delight. this fostered within her a love for film while simultaneously giving her a new, visual language through which to reconfigure the world.
caroline grew up speaking four languages, but didn’t feel fully comfortable speaking any one in particular. this is when she began to explore filmmaking: “my father gave me a camera, and I shot my first family film when I was 17. I shot something and I edited it and then I showed it to my family and everybody loved it. they laughed and they understood what I was trying to say. I felt like [filmmaking] was maybe my language, that this is maybe the way I can express myself best. it's not in French, it's not in English, it's not in Japanese, it's definitely not in German, but maybe when I make a film that's how I can actually speak. and I also feel in general that film is a universal language. if you watch a foreign film, even if you don't understand the language you can still understand the film because it's the world of telling the story visually.”
being poly-lingual, constant translation is the norm in caroline’s headspace. being mixed and gay, it’s embodied. and as anyone who embodies multiple identities and speaks multiple languages understands, there are many concepts that don’t entirely translate from one language, or experience, to another. which is why film is a powerful medium that also conveys extra-lingual elements such as sound and image. it communicates via a world of expression.
’color/blind’ and implicit bias: translation inhibited by sight
unfortunately, the black and white spectrum through which most of society sees the world today inhibits the translation necessary for empathy and understanding. more often than not, how we see, and our implicit biases, get in the way of empathy:
"I was enrolling for school and [before going in for the interview] I had a conversation with them on the phone. when i went to school and they saw me, they were like ‘oh you don't look like you sound.’ and I had the feeling that they were changing their attitude towards me, and [i experience the] same for job interviews like, ‘oh you have a French accent are you French’ and then once they see me they're like, ‘oh I wasn't expecting you to look like this.’ and then I had the feeling that they were treating me differently because of how I looked. that's why I made the film ‘color/blind’ where the main character is blind so he doesn't see ethnicity, he treats everybody the same way; whereas the world around him doesn't see it the same way.”
of course, caroline’s use of ‘color/blind’ doesn’t suggest the erasure or denial of the realities of racism and lived experience of minorities; rather, she calls into question the hegemony of visual perception and how we inadequately and unjustifiably assign meaning to our perceptions. For Caroline, this over-reliance on visuals applies to everyone– we would describe this phenomenon as ‘the modern gaze’; neither the male gaze nor a feminine one, but an overarching objectifying gaze. Non-white minorities are no exception, especially when considering issues of colorism, identity politics and representation. in a society of spectacle, we’re enraptured by appearances without regard to the humxnity behind them– it’s empathy sacrificed on the altar of representation. and when people, minorities included, internalize the logic of representation and create tribalised communities that are exclusively for this or that identity group– this is a phenomenon that further inhibits empathy. which is why for caroline,
"I don't try to make friends with people because they look like me. if I feel like I have a good connection with someone that's what matters to me. and that's another reason for ‘color/blind’: if you're blind you're not gonna choose your friends because of how they look, you're gonna choose people you want to be around because of how they make you feel– and I think that it's partly because I'm mixed that I feel this way.”
for sure, in a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter what anyone looked like; our valuations and attitudes towards others wouldn’t be affected by color consciousness. obviously we’re not going to go all ‘bird box’ and blindfold ourselves to avoid being seduced by appearances. it’s not like blind people can’t be prejudiced. after all, language constructs– such as race– are unavoidable, regardless of whether or not one can see. as the protagonist in ‘color/blind’ portrays, even if you’re blind it doesn’t mean you don’t still have binary concepts informing your perception of the world, non-visual as it may be. ‘color/blind’ complicates the discourse on empathy by showing the futility of bracketing vision from the equation of intersubjectivity. In doing so, it affects the viewer with the sense that ultimately it’s not a matter of right or wrong perception, but whether or not we will continue to engage with one another regardless of what pain we may feel.
as direct translations of her experiences, caroline’s films to-date are intensely personal. she projects on screen the lived reality of everyday humxns that are unapologetically complex and non-binary– like herself. caroline’s follow-up to ‘color/blind’ continues her exploration of intersubjectivity and the things that inhibit the empathy required for it– how visual perception and cultural differences make it so difficult for people who are already in love, to continue to live in it.
In Caroline’s words, her short film "us”, is a film about identity, vulnerability and paralysis of self expression. It tells the story of two women [helen and jo] who are from different cultures and how they negotiate life together.”
in ‘us’, one of the main characters, helen, is upset and feels erased when she discovers that her partner jo isn’t “out” to her work colleagues. however, what helen doesn’t understand is the cultural context which jo is coming from, where being fully transparent isn’t so simple. In other words, jo isn’t white, and the challenges with being openly gay as a person of color isn’t really something helen has considered.
neither hero nor villain, how complexity leads to empathy
While at a screening for ‘us’, caroline found it interesting how people in the audience would side with either helen or jo, which suggests just how much empathy relies on knowledge and familiarity for the cultural context of others:
“what I was trying to do is to make those people understand the other side. it's like, yes your experience as a white person, as an Asian person, is like this; but you have to understand that someone else's experience is not the same as yours so you need to understand why…it’s not like one person is right and the other person is wrong…my girlfriend always says no one is the villain in their own stories.”
hearing this, i am struck by the sensation one gets when a drastic shift in perspective is affected. caroline’s girlfriend introduces us to a fascinating thought. i can’t immediately bring to mind a story where the person telling it is the villain, and knows it– knows that they’re wrong. such a story would be one told out of guilt or remorse, like a confession. to have thought one’s self in the right, only to come to terms with the humxnity in another; to understand one’s self as having the capacity to be a villain in another’s story– this perspectival shift is one affected by empathy. ultimately, no set of relations are binary, nor reducible to right or wrong, hero or villain. we’re always simultaneously both, just to varying degrees. still, that we may not always play hero throughout all the different episodes of our lives is not a popular scenario that most would imagine for themselves. to be able to even consider it, is perhaps a mark of someone who truly understands the complexity in every relation.
this complexity is part and parcel to empathy. growing up hearing her parents arguing, caroline didn’t understand why her parents couldn’t understand each other at times. she would eventually understand after dating someone who spoke another language and who came from a different culture. language and cultural differences can be obstacles that inhibit people from understanding each other; empathy is a lot harder to achieve when difference is proliferated. yet, it is only within this context of tension and struggle that empathy is realized. one doesn’t foster the ability to understand and empathize with others unless and until one decides to remain in that space of difference, tension, and conflict long enough for affection to take hold.
“love is love”: a frame/space/middle-ground for empathy
the location for ’us’ presents such a space. ‘us’ maintains the same frame throughout its runtime. Filmed in an observational, almost voyeuristic style, the camera remains in a corner and never moves. This has an arresting or claustrophobic affect on the viewer. as with any relationship, over time one may feel trapped, and feel the need to move, but can’t. it’s within this confined and locked frame that helen and jo are forced to navigate through the tensions of their relationship. the locked frame makes one feel the permanence and power of place, and its indifference towards humxn drama. it’s within this spatial indifference that helen and jo enact empathy, and in doing so transforms the indifferent stillness of the locked frame into a place of movement, in which things can change in spite of the space’s permanence.
up to now, the discussion of empathy within the context of caroline’s films has been based on love relations. which begs the question, how much does the realization of empathy rely on a pre-existing affection? How intense must this affection be in order for differences to be understood, respected, and lived with, without dissolving them or reducing what’s different in others to one’s own experience?
regardless of social norms and taboos, for caroline, ‘love is love’. it’s between two people and it’s up to them whether or not they can work through their differences.
"I feel like as much as a gay couple or interracial couples have things to learn from each other, I feel like it's the same for a straight couple or for people who are from the same ethnicity, that they have to deal with [their differences]…for example, I was dating a German guy, and we had the same issues that I'm having with being with a woman, so I feel like love is really universal. of course each story has different issues but in the end everything is similar...love is love, like, it really is...I hope when people watch ‘us’, no matter their sexual orientation, that they will feel like it's just a story of two people who are in love, [and managing] to live together…”
when caroline was living in germany, she fell in love with a guy and genuinely felt like she was in love with him despite the fact that she also liked women. eventually that relationship ran its course and now she’s with a woman, but her different relational experiences express how a genuine sexual-fluidity expresses the notion of unconditional love. it’s a love that disregards borders, categories, and appearances.
"these are all just labels we use to put things straight. [there are] straight people who might have feelings for someone from the same sex as them and are confused because maybe they didn't expect it, or i’m thinking of those people who are bigots and who might have feelings for people from the same sex as them but they can't say it out loud. I want them to know, don't be ashamed of that, there's nothing wrong about it. if you feel a certain way, act on it.”
moving forward: normalizing complexity
film is a language and space where people who are mixed and non-binary can naturally find their voices in a world where theirs don’t exist. for someone who is from multiple ethnic backgrounds and poly-lingual, there isn’t a third spoken language that could result in the perfect mixture of something like french and japanese. indeed, no linguistic or symbolic language could possibly reconcile all interpretive differences, bridge all gaps between intention and retention, could deliver messages and acts of locution with absolute clarity and meaning, and be immune to misunderstanding. there’s no mystical universal (verbal) language shared by those who are poly-lingual, just the shared understanding that translation is not an option but a necessity. all this is expressed in caroline’s belief in film as a universal language. it’s that ‘middle ground’, or ‘plane of immanence’, that has the power to affect empathy by way of world-crafting.
In the future, caroline wants to keep writing and making films similar to ‘us’. Films that tell the stories of ‘ordinary’ people’s day-to-day lives, and show how, upon further investigation, are not so ordinary after all– but still relatable. a lot of hollywood films, to caroline, are unrelatable whether it’s due to the homogeneity of whiteness or a class of society that is depicted, but rarely lived. Instead, Caroline prefers the down-to-earth simplicity of Japanese films:
“when I see Japanese movies it's more about ordinary people and that's the kind of movies I want to watch more of. Just because you can also feel like, okay I'm not the only one, and because it's just life and not everything has to be beautiful and perfect…everyday life for people who are ordinary are just as complex and interesting…I'm tired of watching movies of people coming out because that was trendy maybe 10 years ago. I think now we have to just show movies of gay couples.”
‘coming out stories’ abound, but the lgbtq experience is more than just origin stories. the human fixation on origins and beginnings makes sense given how sacred concepts like ‘family’ are to us. and many times we’re expected to believe that these rehashed origin stories, or returning to one’s roots, represent ‘new’ beginnings. that we’re experiencing something familiar, in a new way this time. which is fine. but what about the unfamiliar, for the first time? or in caroline’s terms, how about we accept that people are gay, and just progress the narrative from the middle or even the end? any objection to such suggestions would only betray the power that holds sway over those who never make it too far past go. as those with complex identities know all too well, people can’t help but ask “where are you from?” or “what are you?”
no matter how you parse it, no matter how conscious you are of it, no matter how you try to resist it, it's so ingrained in us to be fascinated and seduced by origins. which is why we find caroline’s work and perspective absolutely fresh and inspiring, because of how far past ‘go’ she is. you get a sense of her character's histories without their pasts ever being a point of exposition. she tells a story, and develops characters, without ever having to reduce them to their past.
“a project that I would love to spend time on is a series that takes the life of ordinary people who happen to be diverse and queer and then really try not to solve the problem [of them co-existing], but [show them] trying to find ways to live together even if they are from different backgrounds or different beliefs. how can we still live together without making each other miserable?”
this. like we’ve explored to varying degrees in all our articles: just because there is diversity does not mean there is mixture. just because there is co-existence does not mean there is community. the longer we merely co-exist, the longer we also maintain territorial divisions; divisions that inevitably lead to competition and discord– and as caroline alludes to, misery. which is why empathy is a recurring theme on mxdflz. the more conversations we have with [mxd] subjects, the more we realize that at the heart of the [mxd] experience is the constant struggle of navigating through, negotiating, and synthesizing differences. which is just another way of asking: “what makes empathy possible?” and as we’re discovering with each story we feature, what makes empathy possible has everything to do with how [mxd] subjects are enacting their embodied complexity through what they do, and creating new narratives and communities around their work.
caroline: “I definitely encourage people to learn more about other cultures or ask questions to friends who don't have the same sexual orientation as you because like we were saying…for example, your podcast, a lot of mixed people are gonna listen but I hope that a lot of non- mixed people are gonna listen. and actually they should be the ones. as much as this is a community for us to find people we can talk to about our issues together, [we also want to] encourage, let's say, white people to listen to it and then learn about what it is to be mixed, and make friends with people who are not like you so you can learn from them.”