Still Life with Woman, Tea and Letter by Tess Martin

Still Life with Woman, Tea and Letter by Tess Martin

Tess Martin is an animator and visual artist based in the Netherlands.

A photograph is a window into the past, but sometimes, the border between past and present is not entirely clear. This stop-motion animation invites us to think about our relationship to time, by portraying one woman caught in the middle - Film Synopsis

This sensitive and thoughtful short stop-motion film reflects on how a photograph can be a window to another time and place. It also considers the limitations of written language as a means of communicating direct lived experience.

In 1975, a young woman sends a letter to her parents, containing photos from her new life in the USA. In the main scene, the letter sits opened on a household tabletop, alongside an array of still-life objects. A photo, presumably of the young woman, sits propped against a vase, and this reveals the secondary scene: we see the daughter in the act of writing the letter. Using stop-motion, the photo is repeatedly replaced to show the daughter as she sips her tea and writes. An older woman, who could be her mother or an older version of herself, then comes to sit in the main scene, and as she reads the letter, there is a sense of distance and reaching out, an empathic connection through the words and images. The daughter recounts her new life in the US, seeking to build a connection with her Mother.

Ultimately, the film seems to take the sense of Still Life objecthood but re-imagined through a stop motion, as a window into another time and place. There is a subtle melancholy to the film, as it acknowledges how people, objects, and memories are lost in time. In conversation, Tess Martin has described ‘how pictures and letters act as a form of time travel’, and there is a strong sense of connection across time with one’s parents, but also with oneself at different stages of life. ‘I had also been thinking about my mother, who is of course, like all of us, getting older. I was thinking about her as a younger woman, and how wonderful and strange it is to think of your parents as being your age, or younger. This way the idea of trying to visualize two times at once came about, combined with the idea of the still life as a form of a portrait of one person’.

In terms of creative intentions, Martin explained ‘We worked hard to create connections between the two time periods in the film, from the props on the tables to the actions and timings of the actresses, even the soundscape is designed to make you question which period the audio belongs to. Both times are represented, yet each is not fully ‘real’. It is a film in between time.’ The film can also be interpreted as two versions of the same woman across time.

Watch 'Still Life with Woman, Tea and Letter':

Martin studied Fine Art at the University of Brighton, and then MA in Animation at AKV St Joost in Breda, in the Netherlands. "I started making stop motion cut-out films that were very impressionistic and non-narrative…I continued to make short films this way as a practicing artist while living in Seattle, USA for five years, and the work became broader: various hand-touched techniques, some shorts that were more documentary and some with an experimental animation collective called SEAT… I have been living in Rotterdam for nine years making short films and installations that usually include animation. These are displayed in both film contexts and fine art contexts."

Regarding the funding scenario, Martin explained that the ‘film was funded by the Netherlands Film Fund, through a special scheme for two-minute animated films that would then be shown in cinemas before a feature film (it's called the Ultrakort scheme). This film did end up being shown in a selection of Dutch art house cinemas in front of a feature in January 2023 for a month.’

This thoughtful and emotive film explores powerful themes of how people may change across spans of time, and how we may relate to one another as these changes occur. Through the careful use of still-life objects with stop motion, there is a sense of time being frozen at two key moments, and the objects selected operate as emotive markers of experience and openings into another period of one’s life.

'Still Life with Woman, Tea and Letter' ('Stilleven met vrouw, thee en brief'), replacement animation & pixilation, 2022 (2’14’’, The Netherlands)
Director and scriptwriter: Tess Martin | Producers: Denis Vaslin, Fleur Knopperts | Distribution: Bonobostudio | Production: Volya Films | Cast: Iris Schutgevaar, Amy Gale | Director of photography: Matija Pekić | Lead animator: Marike Verbiest | Art director: Iris Schutgevaar | Sound design & music: Jorick Bronius | Color Correction: Matija Pekić | This film was supported in the context of ULTRAKORT, a collaboration between the Netherlands Film Fund, VUE Cinemas, and the Dutch Association of Arthouse Cinemas (NFO)

About Tess Martin:
Tess Martin is a filmmaker/visual artist based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Her work is informed by hand-made animation techniques and their potential to explore the human condition. Persistent themes are our place in nature, our relationship to the past, and how memory and perception inform identity. Her practice results in short films, interactive installations, and paintings/prints. Recent works include the ORBIT phonotrope short film and installation (2019) and the paper cut-out film Ginevra (2017).

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Contributed by: Joseph Norman

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