Published in Oh Comely, May 2012.
Fire in the heart
‘Junkhearts’ director Tinge Krishnan talks about writing stories in the playground, leaving medicine, and moving through darkness into light.
She is a believer in transformation and redemption, Tinge Krishnan. It is there in her own story, from her start as a medical doctor to becoming a film director, and it is the central theme in Junkhearts, her first feature film. The brief connection between Lynette, the young homeless girl, and Frank, the wrung-out soldier, triggers significant changes, but still the overarching feeling in Junkhearts is one of bleakness. At least that is what I say to Krishnan as we wait for our tea to arrive.
“It wasn’t intended to be bleak, does it feel bleak?” says Krishnan. This is awkward. The director has just told me how she’s always worried about letting the film down by saying silly things in interviews. And here I am, having possibly misread its intentions completely. But Krishnan seems genuinely interested in my interpretation of the film, asking several questions about which specific scenes I’m referring to. When Frank and Lynette meet they give something to each other, but then it all threatens to fall apart, I say to her. The film almost shows you that you shouldn’t trust people. Krishnan thinks about it for a moment.
“That does exist in Frank. His worldview is that people are not to be trusted, so he’s almost waiting for it to happen. All the little decisions he makes contribute to it. That is a pattern Frank has to shift, and in the end it’s proved, it was right to trust,” says Krishnan. “Frank couldn’t have continued to live the way he lived when he met Lynette. He had to go through a lot of pain, but there was a lot that shifted in that pain and it opened him up.”
Frank suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from being a soldier in Northern Ireland, and this was a key point of connection for Krishnan. Krishnan was in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami, and being a doctor she helped in the aftermath of the crisis. This led to her developing PTSD.
“It was a very powerful experience,” says Krishnan, who received counselling after returning to the UK. “I wanted to make a piece that’s about that healing process. As a filmmaker I could find a way to creatively express those experiences in a way that could touch an audience and help them understand. I think it’s hard to understand PTSD when you haven’t experienced it yourself.”
Before becoming a filmmaker, Krishnan worked as an A&E doctor – not exactly a typical route for budding creative types. Krishnan can trace the idea of a ‘detour’ back to school: “All the way through school I’d write plays and stories, reading them out in the playground. I assumed I was going to become a writer, but my English teacher said I should go do and do something different first.”
While the path to filmmaking wasn’t a conscious choice, Krishnan has no regrets about hanging up her white coat: “That’s fine, because I learned so much from it, it’s amazing.” She pauses. “Aspects of being a doctor that I miss are relating that intimately with people, and finding solutions. That was always very interesting.”
It must have been great to have a job where you got to help people, I suggest, but Krishnan shakes her head: “Medicine isn’t all running around saving lives, sometimes it feels like its mainly banging your head against a bureaucratic wall!” She laughs. “I’m not sure to what degree doctors actually feel they’re making a difference.“
And as a filmmaker, does she feel like she’s making a difference now? Krishnan thinks about it for a moment: “I would hope so. It is my intention. Maybe not? I don’t know. All I can do is try.”
Krishnan spent a lot of time researching the themes of the film, talking to servicemen suffering from PTSD and alcohol problems, and spending time in drug rehab centres talking to former crack users. But when asked about which elements drew her to Junkhearts, the first thing she brings up is the father-daughter relationships; an intertwined storyline is that of Christine, the daughter Frank abandoned. “At the core it really is a relationship film. It’s about that funny relationship between daughters and fathers, or father figures. The interface between feminine and masculine energy can be quite tempestuous.”
The power of the feminine is emerging as a theme for Krishnan’s work, alongside redemption, tenderness and transformation of darkness into light. While also looking after her new baby, the director is currently busy working on her new script, for a thriller centred on a female anti-hero.
Krishnan still has dreams where she’s a doctor, but her heart belongs to film now. “It’s about that moment when we’re on set, and the actors are releasing powerful, in-the-moment performances. I can see it in the monitor and I can hear it in the headset and I can feel that electricity that means we’re getting something powerful. That’s the best feeling.” Krishnan pauses, she seems to have drifted off somewhere. “When making a film there will be a moment when there’s a commitment, you feel it coming from the crew and the cast when everyone knows they are working on something exciting. You really feel the moment when people start to walk through the fire.”