Why we need Little pictures alongside big pictures? - A talk by 13 Little Pictures

After travelling half the world on the film festival circuit and competing in cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, Jeonju, Hong Kong, I awaited the Singapore premiere of ‘Red Dragonflies’ by Liao Jiekai eagerly. However, I found myself sleeping through 10 minutes of the movie when the characters were lost in the forest. Jiekai had warned that you either love or hate this movie. While I don’t hate the movie, you needed to look at it through a very different pair of glasses to appreciate it. I have watched a handful of other works from 13 Little Pictures and they all unflinchingly stay true to their unique artistic style even when it gets trying on the audience. Long, meditative wide shots or half-developed characters who never find their closure. Why do they do what they do? While the talk was entitled the value of independent filmmaking, it could also be seen as a talk on ‘why 13 Little Pictures make the films they way they do’.

From left to right : Elizabeth Widjaya, Lai Weijie, Liao Jiekai and Bee Thiam

13 Little Pictures is a collective of filmmakers who have come together to share resources, ideas and of course hands and legs to realize their own dreams to make films. Not any films, but films that are fiercely original and do not pander to popular style. Some of the titles that have emerged from the collective include White Days, In The House of Straw, Red Dragonflies and more recently at the SIFF – I have loved. All eschew traditional narratives and conventional structure and fiercely inventive in their own ways.

How they could relevant to the talk could be perhaps the fact that they are truly a bastion of the ‘indie’ spirit in Singapore. If recent batches of work from graduating students are anything to go by, it seems like we do have a dearth of fiercely independent voices. Sadly, most of the student works seem like fan-boy tributes to certain popular genres or styles. So in fact, these people are in a good position to tell us why they sweat it out (literally) making their films.

Chris Yeo, Daniel Hui and Looi Wan Ping

Having established that, the talk was effectively more like a chance for the filmmakers to share what their influences were or even to just ‘talk’ without any agenda in mind – almost just like their films! But I was personally most drawn to the segments when Bee Thiam and Daniel spoke and brought back to the crux of the whole issue - what’s the point in making these films?

Creating a case for making ‘indie’ films has many angles to it. You can see from the aspirational. Satyajit Ray bucked the trend of epics in India and was one of few to make independent films, having been inspired by European arthouse cinema. When he died he became a cultural icon and even won an Honarary Academy award. Today, he is considered one of the greatest auteurs of 20th century cinema. Strangely enough, in Singapore they give cultural medallions to commercial torchbearers like Jack Neo. Not that I have anything against him. He is different genre and an icon in his own right.

Sherman Ong (in yellow T-shirt) joined mid-way through the session

If we look at the box office figures of the Singapore film industry over the years, it being depressing is no surprise. Perhaps what we need to turn our attention to is the how commercial films, or rather films pitched to be commercial have in fact all lost money. In fact, the most profitable film of all time in Singapore is the first film of our late 90s film renaissance – Money No Enough. Even Royston Tan’s 881 came in only in 5th place. Grossing $5.8million at the box office, it gave hope to many aspiring filmmakers then. While many people associate it with a commercial spirit and of course Jack Neo, what should not be forgotten is that the film could be seen as a beacon of the ‘indie’ spirit as it was unabashed in the way it told the Singapore story at that time. An interesting nugget of information is that its producer was once quote in the papers back in 1980 as saying filmmaking in Singapore was difficult. Singapore was a cultural desert in all aspects of the word culture then. His name was JP Tan.

If you are worrying about how to finance and distribute yr movies, then you shouldn't bother making movies. Daniel Hui (correct me if I have wrongly quoted) said that without batting an eyelid. I can certainly vouch for that! Without a script or a full story, money itself cannot save a movie. And it is not a chicken and egg issue. A good script will find its backers and resources, even if it may not be in the form of money. What this probably then addresses is the fact that the reverse seems to be the case these days. If you are a name, you can get money with just a concept. This is also why I think sequels suck.

If Bee Thiam was the voice of reason of the night, Daniel was the voice of passion and conscience. More self-assured and fervent than before in his beliefs, he made a strong, almost moralistic case for independent films, not in a bad way.  He likened making independent films to an intimate exercise to connect a small group of people. Making films for large groups of people was conversely likened to wanting power. And not too far from the truth was his belief that cinema today is too indulgent, too in love with nostalgia. The world has forgotten that cinema is about seeing new things. The Lumiere brothers brought over what they saw in Indonesia. People like to see the same things but commercial cinema and culture seems to have conditioned us to go back for the formulaic. To seal of his argument, Daniel got back to simple logic. There was a film that used a cast of stars and seasoned actors, an art director who directed for Atonement and could be said to have been packaged in a style that suited commercial tastes. It still bombed at the box office. That film was The Blue Mansion.

So if you are have a good idea or two but you are trapped in worrying if it will sell, you should just listen to you guts and the rest will take care of itself. If you don’t have a good idea, then I will leave you with this quote dropped by Jiekai at the talk.

‘Creation begins when u turn yr back towards the audience’
Zhu Tian Wen
Writer and long-time collaborator of Hou Hsiao Hsien

Written by Jeremy Sing, photos by Amarendra Bhosle

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