Why are there not enough documentaries in Singapore? 4th Indie Doc Fest explores why

Finally some drama in the presentation at the Substation - don't you love the red lighting? Aishah goes with it so well!

The 4th Singapore Independent Documentary Festival carries a compact but alternative selection of works from Singapore and overseas. If the turnout at the Singapore selection of shorts was anything to go by, it certainly drew a strong target crowd. The Singapore night was almost full house!

It's all about speaking up and making yourself heard - hence the loudhailer

Getting into the theatre

'Sorry I am late. How much have I missed?'

In contrast to the screenings, the forum discussion drew a thinner crowd. On Saturday, a discussion was held to discuss the following topic:
Why are there not enough documentaries in Singapore? Is there a lack of topics to cover? Or are people afraid of getting their words censored? We explore the difficulties and issues faced by filmmakers who are making documentaries, and why filmmakers today resist tackling such a genre.

Nevermind the small size of the forum, the intinate discussion was not short of its fair share of wise nuggets of observations on documentary filmmaking and why it is in the state it is. The panel was made up of the following: Nikki Draper, a lecturer in documentary filmmaking, Prema Menon, a creative producer with Rupture Productions and Abdul Nizam Hamid, a filmmaker.
The TV format

It is observed that many filmmakers make documentaries in a TV sort of format - the 'show both points of view' and wrap it up somehwere in the middleground, giving viewers what they would like on TV or at least local TV - to be informed but not instigated. In addition, there tends to be a penchant for the very safe TV sort of look for documentaries here. Another interesting point raised by Nikki is that there is actually no need to always get an 'expert' subject on the documentary. Ultimately, it's how the views and subjects are all strung together to bring across a certain stand about a topic that makes it a powerful documentary.

Everyone is a documentarian

With YouTube it seems everyone can be a documentarian. Just take the recent general elections and what had been captured and shared on YouTube as an example. There is an abundance of documentary materials especially if the definition of documentaries is broadened in this way. In other words, if any non-fiction type of content can be out into the same category as documentaries, there is no shortage of works in Singapore.

A luxury to be in school

According to Nikki, there are currently 3 schools with documentary filmmaking courses.
Students are also currently a huge source of documentaries. It may not be surprising because as students, they get lots of support from the school. And there is no need to worry about food and bringing back the dough.

Nikki adds that students here have been able to get funding from the government for certain potentially controversial topics. She often tells her students to test the out-of-bound markers and never to censor themselves. Having overcome the self-censorship trap, the next hurdle many face is actually trying to get people to be interested to talk to on camera when the topic is sensitive. She related a piece on National service which sparked off a fierce debate in the student's family. Her parents felt fear.

Working with subjects

Turning the attention to getting subjects to open up, Nizam shared about his experience of striking up a relationship with the cinematographer of P Ramlee before putting the camera on.

The discussion took an turn tangential turn at this point on the potential exploitative nature of certain documentaries and where to draw the line in terms of the responsibilities of filmmakers. Nizam raised the observation that some filmmakers go to a poor country, get the most amazing exposes done on film and then go on to win awards while the slums remain as slums. Should the filmmaker have done something? It is fair to say that filmmakers can't do everything but perhaps he or she could help propel something.

Nikki argues that there is usefulness in talking. She made a documentary in Idaho about gay couples. She featured 4 gay couples and considering it was a town of only 370 people, it was quite risky. At first they were wary about the impact on the lives of the couples with this documentary. But they were happy in the end that there was a chance to speak up about their lives. So there is value in talking.

Parting advice

Prema feels that the power of documentary filmmakers is their act of putting the microscope on certain issues and people. It is important not to sensationalise , not to just say that such and such is bad. Do justice to what you are covering as you might revisit the topic or subjects again.

Nikki looks for stronger opinions and clear stands made in documentaries. Be respectful to your subjects but do not be afraid to ask questions. You may get a positive or negative response or even a shocking response. This is when you should just let the camera do it's job- document the response in its full flavour.

T-shirts designed by director Iara Lee

Casual corridor banter, a post-screening delight

Article by Jeremy Sing
Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form