Alumni tales: From translator to filmmaker

Ingrid Nachstern delves into her creative process and her life in Trinity, speaking to Gabriela Grzywacz

Before my interview with Ingrid Nachstern, a ballet teacher, choreographer, director and screenwriter, I wonder how she does it all. I greet her in Bestseller on Dawson Street and we begin chatting. I started by asking her about how she first started making short films. Nachstern confides in me, telling me that she never considered herself as a creative person. Her creative interests started young: taking up ballet as a child but stopping when she started college. When she came back to Dublin after living in Canada as a translator, and finding “the edges a bit suffocating” in Dublin, she decided to take up ballet again at the age of 39. Persevering in her interests, she then became a ballet teacher, giving adult ballet classes. It was when she was looking for a piece of music for her class that she went into a trance-like state, inspiring her first piece of choreography. She sent her piece to a couple of people that she trusted to review. Anica Louw, a director and ballet dancer, sent her back a three page letter which gave Ingrid the push to do more choreography work as Louw encouraged Nachstern that she “had a very good eye”. Her choreography began from there and after writing a couple of pieces she put on shows in the Helix and New York. Pushing herself out of her comfort zone, she started to take hip-hop classes confessing to me that if she was 20 at the time, she would have “curled up under her duvet”. Despite venturing into this unfamiliar territory, she admits that it toughened her up. One day, she found herself falling into film production accidentally when her stage manager at the time thought that Nachstern’s solo piece Table Manners/Stopping at Red Lights should be made into a film.

“She considers writing her second film Freedom-to-go, ‘a spiritual experience’, as the text came to her in rhyming couplets.”

We started to delve into her writing process, which was fascinating. She considers writing her second film Freedom-to-go, “a spiritual experience”, as the text came to her in rhyming couplets throughout a period of six weeks. Right now, she works on her films in an hour period between 9 am – 10 am and she has to have something else to be working on otherwise she would be “pushed over the edge”. For a long time, her dance studio was the other thing that kept her busy, however, right now she is registered with two agents in London and Paris for dance and acting work. She doesn’t consider her creative work torture, but because of her personality she would just have a breakdown if she worked on her films all day, everyday. 

“I can’t work with stuff that I’m not engaged with otherwise it’s too boring and formulaic.” With that statement we delve into the topic of inspiration. Her ideas come mainly from current events stories: “For Table Manners, I read about a guy in the North of England who went on a rampage. He had a shotgun, and he was driving through these villages shooting people. This was a good few years ago, and on the way he stopped at the traffic lights. He just killed a few people and there was some residual social conscious thing that ‘you can’t break a red light’ and that’s why I called the film Table Manners.”

“I can’t work with stuff that I’m not engaged with otherwise it’s too boring and formulaic.”

Her most recent film, Shoe Horn/Office, was inspired by the horrendous case regarding Brock Turner, an athlete from Stanford who raped a comatose girl on campus. As a feminist, Nachstern was horrified by Turner’s father comments on his son’s sentencing, who said that it was too harsh for only “20 mins of action”. Nicola Thorpe’s case was also an inspiration for the film. Thorpe showed up on her first day of work wearing flat shoes and she was sent home for not wearing high-heels. She won her court case but Nachstern was clearly moved by this, which prompted her to explore foot binding culture in China in her short film. Nachstern tells me about the feet-binding process which lasted for two agonising years and how absolutely horrified she was when she saw a tiny shoe that women wore after foot-binding: “I thought that it was a replica or a facsimile”. This inspired Nachstern to incorporate a very high-heeled shoes in her piece to make a point. 

I was struck by her approach to her filmmaking. Nachstern believes that “it happens as it happens, and if it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t.” She just trusts the process completely, it is only when someone is “bored by the film” that she feels like she has failed. Nachstern knows that her films in not something that people like but that it’s thought provoking. Her films are just on the “right side of not looking away” and I can vouch for that after seeing her latest film. Shoe Horn/Office for example utilises an opaque nude bodysuit that Nachstern insisted upon. However, she did not want to see anything through the suitt so that “it didn’t tip into pornography”, Nachstern adds that she just wanted to see Billie, her dancer, in the suit and recognise her. 

Nachstern is also not shy about the difficulties of making her films, her last film “broke her physically and emotionally” due to tight filming schedules. I admire her honesty on this aspect of film-making, and how she is making changes for her next film which she is in the process of writing. Nachstern’s next film will be on cosmetic surgery and it will be filmed indoors over three days so that it will be more expensive but won’t put as much strain on Nachstern and her crew. 

“The idea of translating from one language to another is similar to translating from paper to screen.”

I wanted to see if she considers her past work as a translator to be a valuable skill while making films. She believes that although her work as a translator was creative in some ways, the idea of translating from one language to another is similar to translating from paper to screen. Nachstern still considers translating “very restrictive” as one has to be very precise with translations. However, she does get the same feeling of accomplishment when she finishes her short films as when she cracked translating a piece of text. 

As an English Studies student, I can’t help but notice that the current academic climate rarely focuses on the importance of Arts and Humanities degrees. I asked Nachstern if she thought that was the case. She was in agreement: “Absolutely, I think if you’re thinking of the humanities versus the science thing, there’s always going to be a group of people who think that it’s a waste of time. The point is that if you don’t have people informed and who are trained to use their particular faculties. Of course, I still believe that science is very important, but both fields need to be on parity. I really think that Trinity taught me how to think. Yes, I went to a good school and had great teachers but it was only when I got to Trinity that I had the space and time [to learn these skills]”. She continues by saying that she had wonderful teachers in Trinity who were very committed.  

Throughout the interview, I am in awe of Nachstern. I believe she’s a great example of how everyone should live out their lives by pushing yourself outside your own comfort zones and following your passions. We all have dreams that are scary to achieve. There’s always a fear of failure but her journey showed me that it’s about trying and figuring it out rather than worrying about success. It is never too late to follow your passions.