Production Talk with Daniel Hui on 'Snakeskin', award winner at the recent Yamagata Documentary Film Festival

Daniel Hui’s 2nd feature film ’Snakeskin’ sees him taking his usual ruminations about society and life a tier up - crossing genres. While still casting a skeptical eye on society and conventions, it now sets its film in the future, 2066 to be exact, and looks back at Singapore in the present. Basically, in 2066, the lone survivor of a Singaporean cult recovers reels of footage filmed by the leader in 2014. The footage is random and varied and also overlaid with narratives from different characters, many of which are hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. Even in the obviously fictional narrative accounts, one gets the sense that it was expressed to mirror certain realities. While overall a collection of unrelated narrative fragments, they are bound by a sense of disorientation about and dislocation from Singapore. Notably, an imaginary narrative of a cult leader’s fall and the history of Singapore’s frequent acts of repression emerge as recurring themes. Overall, a fascinating docu-science-fiction hybrid.

‘Snakeskin’ has been travelling the film festival circuit around the world and has recently been awarded the Award of Excellence of the New Asian Currents program of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan.

The documentary features a cat named Max, who is apparently the reincarnation of an ex-political leader. Through his eyes, we watch the current world go by and gain some catty wisdom about the state of politics in Singapore, or rather the imagined Singapore. This cat has decided to speak for the film in place of Daniel, so we catch up with Max in this interview to uncover the layers beneath ’Snakeskin’.

Max: Hi. My name is Max, and I am the cat who appears in the film. First things first, I don't speak lolspeak. Not all cats do. That assumption is just discriminatory. Secondly, I'm fed up of people putting words in our mouths. Just because you think we're cute doesn't mean you can speak for us. So it's only fair that I get to speak on Daniel's behalf this time.
On your choice of subjects, there are a couple of familiar faces, and many seem like peers you work with? Why were they chosen for the film, other than the convenience of getting people you know to agree to be subjects?

Max: They say Daniel only works with people he knows well. But I only met Daniel on the day of the shoot. I was introduced to him by a friend of the person whose house I'm staying in. He didn't even give me anything to eat that day. So I put on my scariest face for him when he came and tried to run away every time he pointed his camera at me. It worked, I think. I haven't seem him ever since. He's probably scared of me now.
In a nutshell, what are you trying to explore in Snakeskin?

Max: Daniel might tell you that this film is about the necessity of questioning the authority of history, but I think that is just silly. In all my years of existence, history is just words that people like Daniel like to put in my mouth. Who cares really? It's only humans who take history so seriously, who use it to build their identity, to create boundaries between other people and themselves. History can only be created by taking away some other person's right to speak. If you think about it really, I eat and I sleep and sleep. But nobody would ever include me in the history of Singapore. Why? Because you humans are only concerned with the building of your great-human myths, and the only way these myths can be built is if you erase - oh! You humans like to use the word 'forget' instead - the existence of cats like me.

What I really think Snakeskin is about, and Daniel would deny this of course, is Daniel's wishful fantasy of having access to the past. You see, Daniel belongs to a generation that seeks to find a sense of belonging to its country by reclaiming its past. The film is all about him, really. Or maybe you could say it's about his generation. The flip side of this is nostalgia. But thank god this film isn't nostalgic! Nostalgia is an emotion too easily exploited by the people who write history. If anything, this film is too skeptical. Too skeptical to even believe in itself, and so too skeptical for anyone to even take seriously.

This film was made before the recent debate about versions of Singapore history in the light of LKY's death. e.g. the question of who modernised Singapore, was Singapore just a mangrove swamp in the 50 etc. What gripped and inspired you about this subject before the everyone else did?

Max: Come on, do you really think Daniel is a pioneer in anything? He's not nearly as smart as you think! The film is only part of a growing discourse that has intensified over the past year with Singapore's 50th anniversary. I see it all the time from my room. Every year the number of flags on the HDB ledge just keeps increasing. So, you know, the more emotional one group gets about this issue, the more skeptical another group gets. I think it's necessary, though, to be skeptical. See, I never understood this thing you humans call 'faith'. We cats are simple. We never see you as our owners. But you human beings are so eager to be owned. It always makes me wonder why you think we're your pets when, really, it's quite the opposite! See, we cats don't trust people, least of all humans. I just find it funny that you humans consider skepticism a bad thing! 

Snakeskin seems to blur the lines between documentary and fiction, how would you define it?

Max: Daniel seems to be calling the film a dream documentary. It all sounds so artsy-fartsy. I think I prefer the term 'docu-fuck'. The terms 'documentary' and 'fiction' are again things that you humans invented. For us animals, as my porcine friend Gertrude Swine would say, a mouse is a mouse is a mouse - whether it was born from a Mama mouse, or whether it is just something you jerk around by the edge of a string, it's still fun for us. 


The film is distinguished by the use of a narration over activity and location footages and even when people are in shot, they are shown doing something unrelated to what they are narrating. How did this style come about or evolve in the process of making the film?

Max: It's just so that Daniel can put whatever he wants on our faces! He is guilty of writing 'history' as well! LOLZ! Anyway, who knows what's really going on in that little mind of his? But you know what? Never trust anything in a film. It can lie to you. After all, cinema, like politics, is just a performance.

People take cinema - images and sound - too literally, meowthinks. Images and sound should always be suspected. Images can be figurative, implicative, associative, and allusive in many different ways. So can sound. When you hear the sound of a cat purring, it can mean affection, but it can also mean that I'm just hungry! When you see an image of film burning, it can mean the destruction of cinema, but it can also refer to the regenerative quality of fire. Images and sounds can have so many different meanings. One must think like a cat, to not attribute a single meaning to these things, but to consider them in ALL their meanings, to see both the inside and the outside of things. When you see people onscreen, you should see them both as the characters they're playing, and the performers that they are. Same thing as real life really! So when you see me, you don't just see a cat. Or do you?!

What are your thoughts on winning at Yamagata? And what was the reaction of the judges and audience at Yamagata?

Max: Daniel is obviously very happy that we won the prize. You know, his work doesn't incite a lot of enthusiasm in his home country, so sometimes he can get really morose. This award makes him feel a lot less alone, and for that he is very grateful.

Learn more about the latest developments on Snakeskin's tour in the film festival circuit it its official Facebook page here.

And check out the trailer here:

Share:

0 cent worth