`To Speak' by Craig Ower

30 years ago, the Khmer Rouge tore through rife-stricken Cambodia, decimated lives and robbed people of a thing that would set them back years in progress, the ability and will to speak out. 30 years later, with Khmer Rouge leaders now under the grilling of the international tribunals, back in Cambodia, some things have still not changed. The lack of a voice to speak for what one wants.

Told rather linearly, like an non-profit organisation video, we follow Ratana as she follows her heart to try to set an example to improve lives in her disillusioned village. Ratana is built slightly differently (in a prosperous way!) from the rest of the kids who really looked fed from the diet (as revealed in the film) of chipped and broken rice. Even without the cinematographic narrative, we know the spotlight's on her. She chances upon a village that seems to have lifted itself from the doldrums and found the lady behind the blessing - a volunteer from Tabitha, an NGO. Through their friendship, she overcomes the impossibility of saving up for a house. But it is a rocky journey filled with dilemma as the biggest obstacle she faced was her own mother's objection and skepticism. Then, trouble also began to brew outside her own household, this time, among the villagers who wanted Ratana to stop her drive.

The film had a social purpose so the ending had to support a cause more than capture the glaring reality of life there. So, in fact, Ratana does get the house she pined for so eagerly. It was not difficult to follow the character's emotional journey, for the child actress had a certain charisma and the storytelling structure seemed lifted directly off an account. But enjoying To Speak for its what it was meant to be, required some suspension of disbelief because it was a real community effort that used volunteers to act. And this requires my banter with Stefan for maximum effect. Kekekekek(wicked laugh).

Panorama Crosstalk #4

J : You know, everybody wants to make a film in Cambodia these days.
S : Cos it's probably cheap, and you don't have Prima Donna actors.
J : So exploitative. I thought it’s because you can pick any part of their history and make a story out of it.
S : Then that makes you even worse than me! (pause) Tabitha…….
J : Tabitha sounds like a name you could give a soft toy.
S : Haha. (Beat) I felt at times the movie did seem like it was an extended advertisement.
J : There were many other ways I saw it - corporate video, instructional video (on how to save money), Children's drama…
S : Yeah, and self-help inspirational stuff too. J : Oh yes.
S : Actually includes Economics 101!
J : Not to discredit Craig, for I think he has a very focussed vision for To Speak. But I can’t help noticing the very linear storytelling style. I mean it really serves the purpose of education but if you start analysing the dramatics, it had a lot of CDIS in it.
J : Remember CDIS? The regular educational TV programs that SBC used to show in the 80s.
S : Oh yeah! Usually in the mornings and afternoons.
J : Yes! With that familiar logo.

Laughs. Pause.

J : What do you think of Ratana?
S : I thought she was the better actress amongst the lot.
J : She had charisma. S : I can't help but notice sometimes her siblings cannot tahan and glimpsed at the camera.
J : Cant blame the `community' effort of this film. She was not bad for a lead. A little Ang Moh in the eyes and facial features. Wonder if they should have gotten someone skinnier.
S : To reflect that they're exploited and really hungry?
J : Slap Slap Slap my face.
S : Think I read somewhere that if u noticed carefully, their clothing didn't change too to reflect their poor status (and probably makes it easier for the wardrobe dept lah).
J : Right. Lol.
S : You mentioned that you have a lot to say about the mom, don't you?
J : You make me sound so mean Stefan! I only wanted to say she stole the thunder occasionally with her screen `presence’.
S : I thought she overacted at times.
J : Okay la.
S : She really gave our heroine a hard time, especially the part when she tore up the savings book I wondered why she did that... it's money, well, recorded on paper anyway.
J : She must be too comfortable with her rather properous state, fed on a miraculous diet of broken rice bits. (Pause) The villagers as a whole were an amusing lot too. (Pause) Like when Ratana tried to persuade them, the chief rejected and stood up, the remaining villagers all stood up in synchronisation and marched off.
S : Lol. (Pause) For me, the last bit was a lil cheesy, where they tried to persuade Ratana to stay, then ripped their own house to furnish hers lol.
J : Also, there was the………….
Censored to prevent further damage. J : (Sounding more mature this time) But having said that, I think it is fair to say every film chooses its audience.
S : That's true, and I think if it's shown to the cast, they would enjoy every minute of it being the meaningful project it was meant to be.
J : I mean this film had a very definite social purpose. Only wankers like us will pick out silly details.(Beat) Honestly, I think if I was given a group of villagers, I am not sure if I can get them to scream shout and cry like that. Quite an achievement.
S : Especially when there's a language barrier. But they are so gung-ho to be acting it up for a movie. (pregnant pause) Really, the movie has its moments.
J : What's yours?
S : The power of compounding interest.
J : That's a CDIS moment! (pause) Mine was the initial image of the house being built. And the lady from Tabitha.
S : She was special.
J : Exuding a lot of calmness and wisdom
S : And strength.
J : Like a laughing Buddha.
Incidentally, Jeremy got to know the extent of Tabitha's outreach and recognition among people when he met a few expats shortly after watching the movie (watched it last yr). It seems every Western expat in Singapore knows Tabitha. There you go, a guaranteed audience.
Tickets for 13 Apr are already sold out unfortunately. It is also going places with screenings in Australia and Canada later in 2008.
Check out http://www.tospeakmovie.com/ and festival updates on http://tospeakthemovie.blogspot.com/
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