“When you wash dishes for a living, your mind wanders, not to fantasy worlds and distant universes . . . it wanders to familiar places, all the places in this world you’d rather be.” This quote, taken from Joel Salaysay’s short film Lifers, sums up his experience as an aspiring filmmaker working as a dishwasher to fund his projects.
Salaysay is a recent graduate from the SFU film program; over the past few months, he received both his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and the Best Fiction Film award for this film, Lifers, at the 2014 Canadian Student Film Festival (CSFF). The festival, part of the Montreal World Film Festival, featured his film along with 26 other students films, nine of which were also created by SFU students.
The award came as a pleasant surprise for Salaysay who certainly didn’t expect to win anything. For him, it was a reward in and of itself to have been featured in the festival. Nevertheless, “when you do [win] it’s really nice,” Salaysay said.
Lifers is geared primarily toward those who, like Salaysay, are in the process of finding a career for themselves, but it “struck a chord” with many different groups of people, according to Salaysay. Some have commented on the film’s accuracy. A number of older audiences enjoyed the film and, as Salaysay said, “a lot of people will relate because, who hasn’t worked in a kitchen at some point?”
This is Salaysay’s most personal film. He suspects that borrowing the concept directly from his own experiences led to the film’s authenticity and relatable details.
The term ‘lifers’ is a loose reference to prisoners serving a life sentence. It also alludes to being stuck in transition — doing something one doesn’t wish to do for the rest of one’s life.
Salaysay draws a connection to this using different metaphorical cues throughout the film. The sound of a recurring train at the beginning and end of the film has no real place in a kitchen. Yet the sound cue signifies being stuck on the line, headed somewhere one doesn’t wish to go or forced to see the same scenery again and again, never arriving at the desired destination.
Similarly, hands embody an important rite of passage for culinary experts working in a kitchen, like tattoos in prison. “The more you can tolerate without needing a glove or a towel to block the heat, the more distinguished you could become,” Salaysay explains. “It’s kind of a sign that you’ve been there for a long time and this is sort of your way of life, your baptism.”
However “[Lifers] is the kitchen from the perspective of someone who doesn’t see that for themselves as their career,” Salaysay continues. For him, the processes of dish-washing and making films are similar — with long hours, very little pay, and mental and physical exhaustion. Because he loves telling stories and creating films, the pain is worthwhile in filmmaking. Salaysay refers to a Jerry Seinfeld quote: “Success is finding the torture that you are comfortable with.”
Salaysay is proud of his accomplishments. This is his first time working with a larger cast and he is very thankful to have had such a great team. “Everyone really wanted to give it their all and that was really helpful.”
For the immediate future, Salaysay aims to continue creating. He is currently working on a new web series, but hopes that this award will open the door to write and produce a feature film.
Lifers will screen at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 30 and October 8. For more information, visit viff.org.