Is Filmmaking for a normal person like me? by Leonard Lai

I chanced upon a reflective article by fellow filmmaker Leonard Lai. He echoes a lot of what I feel because I belong to a group of filmmakers in Singapore who did not start off our career in filmmaking but rather in something of dryer nature like finance or engineering. And not everyone gets doors open all the time. In fact, sometimes, when things wear us out, a different voice in us surfaces to make us ponder. Here's what he wrote...

Haven’t been blogging for quite a while. Was going through a rough patch. I have been making films for about 5 years now, going into my 6th year in 2009, with little results to show. I will be 36 years old in 2009, how many more years do I have?

I don’t know whether other filmmakers go through periods like this; when I am thinking that I must be crazy to even try to make films in Singapore, let alone films that are not commercialize, little films that means much maybe only to me. It doesn’t help when family doesn’t support you. When one tells you often enough that you don’t have what it takes, slowly your will and determination starts to erode, starts to decay. You will start to waver and believe it. I once gave an interview and said that to do filmmaking in Singapore, passion is only the beginning, more important: you must have perseverance. When the road gets hard and narrow, when you don’t even know whether there will be a light at the end, will you go ahead or turn back?

I don’t know. I don’t think I will ever know. I remember an essay I wrote some time ago, for a submission into a programme in korea. I will take heart and remember why I wrote these words:

“Making films are not for normal people like us.” My dad will always tell me as he points towards an article in the newspapers about filmmaking or when he sees a television report about films. My mum will add, “it take millions to make a film, our family will never be able to have this kind of money.” I understand perfectly the sentiments and concerns that they have. Sometimes in moment of weakness, these uncertainties still sneak up on me. Is filmmaking really not for a normal person like me?

To answer this question, I think the best way is to relate how I become a filmmaker. My journey and love for film began when I was just a child, but I didn’t realize then that it would be a 30 years road to realize this dream. When I was in primary school, my family lives in a rented two room flat. Privacy is non-existent as I share a room with my older sister and younger brother. I would sleep on a mattress on a foldable bed while my sister and brother shares a double-decker. We used to a play a game of story telling when my younger brother would asked me to tell him stories.

My escape from such a claustrophobic environment comes when my grandfather would come and visit us. It is always very special because my grandfather would bring us to a nearby cinema to watch late 1970’s and early 80’s melodrama films. These were magical moments of escape and fantasy.

As I grew up and mature, my interests expanded into other forms of story telling like literature and history. My thought processes have also started to change, maybe as a result of the English oriented educational system in Singapore. Here, English is designated to be the first language. This is the result of the “The Bilingual Policy” adopted in 1966, where one of its primary objectives is to promote English as the common (and neutral) language among the diverse ethnic groups in Singapore.

I began to think and rationalize in English instead of Mandarin Chinese, which is my mother tongue and the first language of expression I grew up speaking and learning. I guess I do not realize it back then but this change has also started to present certain views to me, that the arts is an elective pursuit and that emphasis should be towards the engineering sciences. However, I still love story telling very much and had done well in subjects related to it with less effort.

When it was time to choose my majors during my Junior College, I did not have the courage to challenge this view and had chose to pursue the engineering sciences. I had continued along this path and graduated with a Degree in Civil Engineering from the National University of Singapore. Still, I continued to mature in the kind of films I watched and had often buried myself in the University’s Resource Library with its vast collection of videotapes. It was also during this time that the possibility of being a filmmaker slowly seem possible, with the starting of Singapore independent filmmaking scene by Eric Khoo with “Mee Pok Man” in 1995, after an absence of Singapore films for about 20 years.


After my graduation, I have practiced as an engineer and had progressed to the position of Project Quality Assurance Manager in my company when I was 30 years old. However during this period of time, I have come to accept this nagging realization; Engineering is not my calling. My mind is able to rationalize and carry out the job and do it well due to my training, but my heart and spirit in not fully devoted to the engineering pursuit. I have always returned back to the pursuit of film to define myself. After this long journey, I have decided to realize my long-term desire to commit to a career in filmmaking when I am 30 years old, a turning point in my life. Is it too late? The thought is of course always constantly on my mind. To devote myself to the craft at this stage in life, there would be no turning back. The decision I have made is after much deliberation within myself and also after much planning. I am clear about the direction that I want to strive towards.

I would like to relate an incident that happened recently. I was with some Singapore filmmaker friends chatting after a film screening at the 2008 Singapore International Film Festival. Our conversation slowly shifted from the film we just saw to what we will be doing 20 years from now. One of them wants to retire and open a resort for old people where they are treated like kings. Another wants to do more humanitarian work to help the needy and practice Yoga. When it’s my turn, I said I want to make films until the day I die, the kind of films that I have no regrets making and proud to call a “Leonard Lai Yok Wai Film”.

So, is filmmaking for a normal person like me? “

Check out more articles about his films and influences on his blog.
Also, catch his film 'Love Lost' at SIFF Singapore Panorama section this April.

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