Singapore Heritage Short Film Competition: A Wistful Yet Lucid Glimpse Into Slices of Our Heritage

Heritage film. It's a phrase that local cinephiles greet with trepidation. Many are, after all, weary of the endless sepia filters, over-generous doses of sentimentality, and nostalgic voiceovers that seem to have become hallmarks of the genre.  So it's with relief that I say that the Singapore Heritage Short Film Competition, which organises an ongoing series of screenings (and is seeking new submissions for its next edition), might shatter some of your expectations.

Sure, not all of the entries were immune to the trappings that come with capturing the past and/or disappearing traditions, but after watching the entire crop of finalist shorts, concerns subside. As far as revealing snapshots of vanishing subcultures goes, the best submissions from this batch are clear-eyed and coherent, telegraphing a sense of loss without wallowing in it.

Kuda Kepang

I’m not sure if the Singapore Heritage Short Film Competition mandates all submissions to be styled as documentaries (it’s possible to capture Singapore’s heritage via fictional work, though certainly more difficult and resource-intensive), but all the finalist entries hewed to the non-fictional approach, for better or worse. You’ll find entries that are guilty of the usual cinematic sins found in documentaries: too much exposition via narration, for example – Beyond the Checkmate, an ambitious if somewhat sterile film that traces the 80-year history of Chinese chess in Singapore, does stumble in this regard, dumping overwhelming amounts of information at viewers via a monotonous voiceover.

Regardless, most of the films offered captivating glimpses into more esoteric slices of our heritage: the personal experiences of two Eurasians in the aptly titled I Am Eurasian; the dying practice of visiting graves at Bukit Brown cemetery during Qing Ming Festival; and the earliest form of signboard-making through traditional means in Tools of the Trade, among others.

What I admired most about the films was their refusal to surrender to "past is better" cliches; for the most part, they tend to avoid making grand statements about the changing landscape of Singapore and simply focus on their subject matters. I've resented films that have consistently hectored me to feel, feel, feel for the past, for dying traditions, and their tendency to conflate Old Singapore with "authenticity" (i.e. modern Singapore is not "authentic") sits uncomfortably with me, so it’s a relief the films here manage to conjure a sense of wonder and intimacy without committing to lazy cliches.

Beneath the Spikes

The top two prizes of the competition went to deserving entries: Kuda Kepang: Reviving the Culture, a wry, fascinating look at a stigmatised Javanese dance form where practitioners enter a trance; as well as Beneath the Spikes, which tells the real-life story of Hari, who undergoes more than 100 body piercings in the Hindu festival Panguni Uthiram, as a way of giving thanks to the deities for his son’s wellbeing. Both were technically competent, eschewing long, cumbersome chunks of narration in favour of smart, visual storytelling (shouldn’t they all?).

The SHSFC is now seeking submissions for its next edition. You can visit here for more information.

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