LUNCHBOX #11: Tan Bee Thiam

Bee Thiam is recognisable by his prominent forehead and soft, calm spoken ways. His name surfaced in the film circles when the first Singapore Shorts DVD by the Asian Film Archive was launched in 2005. He was the Executive Director of the Asian Film Archive then. He stood out as a champion of local and Southeast Asian Film, promoting both appreciation and also intellectual discourse on these films. Under him, the Asian Film Archive also outgrew its role of simply being an archiving operation, it became an active voice in promoting Southeast Asian Film. He has since moved on to being on the actual film set itself with his role of as founder and producer of film collective '13 Little Pictures', that makes 'fiercely independent' films. In between, he is also a film lecturer, curator and is active in the Southeast Asian circuit of film critics. In LUNCHBOX 11, we get into the head (or forehead) of Bee Thiam of what he sees in himself, in films and in the current state of the film community.

Bee Thiam speaking on Singapore cinema's history at the Esplanade in 2011 as part of the Esplanade's 'Love Stories of Singapore' talk series

Again, speaking about Singapore's film heritage in his talk 'Understanding Singapore Cinema' also at the Esplanade in 2010

The ex-President SR Nathan presented with a token of appreciation by Bee Thiam at the Asian Film Archive's charity screening of 'Moon Over Malaya' in 2010

Jeremy: How long have you been in the film industry? Or consider yourself to have been involved for?

Bee Thiam: How would you define the film industry?

J: I know in Singapore it is a bit difficult to draw the line where the industry starts.

BT: Indeed. Perhaps the starting point can be when I first start to make film.

J: Sure. That reminds me of an old website of yours I chanced upon years ago which had you in much longer hair and it was about your own films.

BT: (giggles) I have always been interested in film. But access to a film camera until recently is a luxury. Therefore, I started in photography to learn about the image. It was during my army days. I read and think about the world as time passes me by.

J: What did you do in the army?

BT: I was in reconnaissance. It was also when I was in army that I first got involved in production. I was the production manager for a NTU student film called Liquid Dreams. When I was in NUS, I was roped in by the founding team of nu(STUDIOS) – a film production group under NUS Centre for the Arts. We were not formally trained in filmmaking and had lots of fun figuring things out together. I directed my first film, Shelter, City of Forgetting, an adaptation of a short story by late Dr Gopal Baratham. Kirsten Tan produced it. I was later elected Chairperson of the group and enlisted Eric Khoo, Royston Tan and Kelvin Tong to be executive producers of our short films and to mentor us. It was an exciting time for us and we were very encouraged by the support we got from the industry.

J: From making your own short films to what you are doing currently, obviously you had a very different vision from the usual filmmakers. You see the need to do things beyond your own personal fulfillment. How did that come about?

BT: I did not set out to be a filmmaker. I am first and foremost a film lover. I want to help people more talented than I do make their films. If there is someone with a more urgent and compelling story to tell, I would like to get them heard too. Because when you love films, it does not matter who makes them. Even when it comes to my own practice, I like to make films for someone else. Shelter, for example, was made for Dr Baratham. When the short film was screened for Mrs Baratham, she recounted how her late husband told her the story when they were out for a stroll. It was a small way for me to thank Dr Baratham for his books that I read when I was growing up. Amir Muhammad commissioned me to direct Kopi Julia, a short film adaptation from a book series he published. The film that transpired was homage to the Malay horror films in 50s.

J: Do you think many filmmakers are indulgent?

BT: I can’t answer the question. Filmmaking for me is not so much diary writing than letter writing. For someone special. When I make films, I make them to give away. Naturally, I like to customize them for who I like to give them to. Mostly, it is just for one person. And I think that is enough audience for me.  

J: I know you studied Engineering. Was it your choice or a practical decision at that time?

BT: It was my choice.

J: Why did you choose Engineering?

BT: I was curious. I am interested in how images are formed on light-sensitive materials, how video images are encoded and decoded so it can be communicated from one phone to another, how an incomplete image can be restored through algorithms. I am also interested in the history of films and in the business of film. Outside of lecture theatres, I spent many hours in the NUS library, watching and reading about films.

J: So when did you know you like films?

BT: Probably in secondary school when I was studying for exams in front of Arts Central (laughs). I have fond memories of the old National Library at Stamford Road. I watched Citizen Kane and many other works in the multimedia section. I also remember the laser disc Criterion collection in the basement Media Resource Centre in NUS library. I love libraries, as much as I love films. There is something magical in a public loaning system of ideas. You return what you have read and watch so it continues to have a life beyond us. No one is privileged over another to monopolize on the collection. Anyone who wants to learn can find something to be inspired by. The abundance of a good library teaches its users to be generous in spirit. There is enough to go round, let’s share and learn to live together. An ideal society for me works like a library.

J: What made you decide to pursue film as a career?

BT: I never see film as a career. I just do what I like to do. And thankfully, I have so far manage to make ends meet for my family and I. My dad passed away when I was in the university. He was the sole breadwinner for the longest time and so I had to quickly adapt and find work to do while studying. I started company with a really good friend and we managed to bring some dough back home each month. You’ll learn to survive. It’s human instinct.

J: How difficult was that chapter in your life?

BT: It was difficult and yet the most enriching. My family has never been closer in the last 6 months before my dad passed away. I would fetch my Mom on the motorbike my dad bought for me to visit him in the hospital. In between classes, I would meet clients. It was a very fulfilling time. It taught me about life, love and what really matters.

J: How big is your family?

BT: I have two siblings. I am sandwiched in between. My sister is an aeronautical engineer and my brother is in IT. 

J: You still close to your Mom now?

BT: Yes, we just went Korea together. I got her a Samsung smartphone so she can facebook to check out pictures of her grandchildren. 

J: You started the Asian Film Archive (AFA) after university?

BT: I went on a backpacking trip after graduation. I wanted to see the world outside of Singapore. My journey into the world of films is dotted with many coincidences. India is such a huge country but it was there that I bumped into Tsai Ming Liang and Lee Kang Sheng, along with many others like Mohsen Makmalbaf and Uwei Haji Saari.

J: Was that your first close encounter with the film world?

BT: Since my army days, I have been going to the Singapore International Film Festival. SIFF is an integral part of my film education. The film programmes that Philip Cheah and his team put up were challenging and inspiring. I was often at The Substation too. The Moving Image programme by Audrey, Yuni and Wenjie was a helpful platform to connect me to the many budding filmmakers at that time. That was before YouTube when people would make trips to watch films and meet filmmakers. I saw some of Royston’s early student works there. I also remember Audrey organizing film appreciation sessions and that was when I first watched Taxidriver by Martin Scorsese. I also remember Singapore Short Cuts where I showcased two of my early short films. I remember a 2-hour conversation at kopitiam with Michael Lee who came to see my film. These are precious memories for me. 

J: I guess that answers my question of why you started AFA. I can see the beginnings of AFA in your life.

BT: Life brings us where we are. Regarding AFA, a few pivotal events happened before it started. My meeting Alexis (Tioseco) at the first Association for Southeast Asian Cinemas conference, along with Khoo Gaik Cheng and other folks. Spending a week with Tsai Ming Liang and Lee Kang Sheng in India as their unofficial translator at a film festival. Tsai was easily inspired by his environment and would show me things he scribbled. I then traveled up north to Daramsala to visit the Dalai Lama.

J: The real Dalai Lama?

BT: Yes in north India.

J: Oh my goodness.

BT: I wanted to go to Kashmir too but on the day I was supposed to take the bus, a bomb went off in the bus stop. I waited a few more days and then diverted. After I came back, I wanted to re-edit Shelter. That was when I realized that some of the footage had not been well kept. It led me to ponder about what other filmmakers go through. So I started to research on film archives around the world and find out how to start one. I started groundwork in 2004, speaking to many people and organizations. While counting down to the start of 2005, I decided to set up the Asian Film Archive formally. We were lucky to have four kind and generous souls help form the board of directors and a group of enthusiastic friends and strangers who step forward to volunteer. By the third quarter of 2005, we receive enough funding to employ our first employee. It was not me that I employ though. 

I wrote quite a bit when I was backpacking in India. I wrote on pieces of paper and I emailed people to share with them my experiences. One of them was Alexis.
The first Association for Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference in 2004 NUS influenced both of us deeply. It was the first time we met with a larger community of scholars, filmmakers and curators who are interested in Southeast Asian Cinemas. A very ground-up attempt by a group of people to do something for the region. Around the same time I started the Archive, Alexis started Criticine, an online film magazine to elevate film discourse on Southeast Asian Cinema. 

J: Were you and Ben Slater the only active (or even hardcore) film academics or writers at that time? I mean I see you and Ben as the first names that come to mind when it comes to writing thoroughly about local films.

BT: I am not a film academic. But to answer your question, there were a lot of other Singaporeans participating in the first conference too. The chair was Professor Chua Beng Huat who was a great supporter of younger scholars in the cultural cluster of Asia Research Institute (ARI). Juan, Wenjie and Yuni were there too. The convener was Khoo Gaik Cheng, who was a fellow with ARI then. Lav Diaz was supposed to attend but he gave his ticket to Alexis instead, then a young film critic. And of course, there was Benjamin Mckay from Australia whose PhD thesis was on P Ramlee.

We did not want the conference to be a one-off event. We also did not wish for it to be confined to Singapore. So a core group of the participants worked together and the conference travelled almost annually to a new Southeast Asian city. In 2005, it was Bangkok, then Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Ho Chi Minh.

J: There seems to be more people wanting to be filmmakers than film writers or researchers. Does this worry you?

BT: There are also many new and talented writers, researchers and curators. The folks from Perspectives Film Festival (NTU); Sinema Old School - David (Lee), Rajesree, Sharon and others; Substation, there was Kristin, BK and now Aishah; National Museum, there is Wenjie, Warren and now Zu Boon; Singapore Art Museum, there is I-shan. At the Asian Film Archive, there is Karen, who is a greater archivist and writer than I am. There was Ethan, Jean, Pauline and now Tee Pao, not forgetting the many interns and volunteers who continue to work in the arts today. In a heritage organization like an archive, we work to ensure that things are passed on and that the people who succeed us will do a better job than we would taking care of works of importance and relevance to the future. I have seen many talented writers, researchers and certainly archivists. It’s a pity we do not have enough jobs and opportunities for them in Singapore.

J: Is there anyone who has inspired you in your journey so far?

BT: There are a lot of people I draw inspiration and strength from. There is Henri Langlois, founder of Cinémathèque Française way back in the 30s. He was pioneering in what an archive has to do and can be. Some people did not agree him but it was because of him, that many works remained; he also birthed the French New Wave filmmakers, providing them their film education. And there is Ozu Yasujiro, a master who teaches me so much about seasons, patterns, life, its grace and disappointments. Jean Luc Godard, the greatest living filmmaker today. Everything you need to know about cinema, you can learn from watching his films.

J: What is it about his films that makes you say that?

BT: Because  Le Mepris. Because Pierrot le fou. Because Eloge de l'Amour (In Praise of Love). Because Histoire(s) du cinema. He is a responsible filmmaker.

J: When you say responsibility, do you mean filmmakers have a duty to present something that is worth-watching or people can learn something from? Can you define it?

BT: The role of cinema extends beyond entertainment and moralistic messages.  Responsibility for me is when one is given the privilege to the means of production, that one creates something true and useful for the maker and his audience.

J: Is a responsible film is one that treats and understands the subject adequately? I mean how about someone who treats the subject in a different perhaps more indirect manner, using references and it may not be totally accessible. But to the filmmaker, that is how he would like to see it.

BT: I would not set out to make something inaccessible. But if everything can be summarized into a one-sentence message, why make it into a film? If even the closest of friends can have misunderstandings, why should we assume a stranger in another part of the world would fully get what we mean? A film is not a Math problem. You do not need to understand or solve it. As a responsible filmmaker, I can only make it as honestly and as truthfully as I know how to, without second-guessing whether a random audience will get it. I can only say it, as if making a love confession, to someone special. All others, whom I may never know, are merely eavesdroppers, who may hopefully relate to the situation I am trying to describe.

J: I mean in a very typical Singaporean mindset, when you say responsible film, it refers to a film that makes money for your investors.

BT: Of course, if you are taking money from someone who expects some kind of returns, you should fulfill that part of your obligation. In the same vein, I always tell filmmakers not to take money they are not meant to receive. Don't take money just because it is available. Funding is sometimes the worst form of censorship. Do not make a certain kind of film just because there is funding to make this certain kind of film. Financial responsibility is also making the best of whatever resources you have at hand without getting other people to have to deal with your liabilities. It is easy to get carried away and pack a project with more resources than you need to assuage your insecurities. I feel that is not being responsible. I think we should always be conscious too that there are people, apart from the directors and producers, who have invested time and emotions to a project. To me, the filmmakers include the writer, assistant directors, director of photography, camera assistants, gaffer, grip, art director, stylist, makeup artist, editor, sound recordist, audio engineer, music composer, production assistants, actors, extras… all who make a film possible. Let us not overemphasize the auteur as if he can work without others. The time and work put in by underpaid crew and cast in Singapore film need to be addressed too. We need to recognize their ‘investment’ as well. 

J: You are always so composed and calm. Do you have any fears in your life?

BT: Sometimes I fear that I am not doing enough as a son, as a brother, as a friend.

J: Is it because you are not spending enough time?

BT: It is not. I think one of the most precious things you can give another person is attention. I like to spend time with people who mean a lot to me. But I fear they may still think I am not giving them enough attention. 

J: I want to pick your brains about the film movement in Singapore. About 5 years ago, with the Lucky Seven Project started by Sun Koh, I saw the coming together of filmmakers collaborating in a way closer than never before. That probably also seeded the momentum in new filmmakers like Daniel Hui leading to the formation of 13 Little Pictures. Where do you see the movement now?

BT: A lot of ‘movements’ in the history of cinema are mere labels for publicity. I prefer to focus on the works that are produced. Are distinctly different from those made before? How and why do they depart from the traditions? Yes there have been filmmakers consistently making new and exciting works in recent years, many unfortunately are not getting much publicity; some only until recently. I like the new works of Charles (Lim) and Tzu Nyen. There are quite a number of student works from ADM, LaSalle and Tisch that I find promising. They are no longer about the nostalgia and melancholy; they are more urgent, ingenious and empowering. I think 2008 is a landmark year - filmmakers are no longer just making short films or omnibuses but full-length feature works. That is an achievement.

J: Where do you think the filmmaking movement or the current scene is going now? I mean, so many people, not usually in the scene are making films like actors for instance. Is it moving in a promising direction?

BT: Anyone who can muster the resources to make a film he/she really wants to make, should just do so. Don't let anyone stop you from believing you are able to make your films. As long as you do not harm anyone in the process. It does not matter whether the filmmaker is an actor, actress, radio deejay or a TV director. Are short filmmakers who have made short filmmakers more qualified to make feature films? No. How many short films did Jack Neo make? Yet today, he is the most commercially successful filmmaker in Singapore. Whether I like or dislike a film; whether I agree or disagree with how a film is made, is inconsequential. In all honesty, I think there is a film for everyone in the world. It’s like love – we are not looking for perfection but connection. For us to grow and sustain the filmmaking culture in Singapore, we afford to be more encouraging and collegial. For us to have quality films, we need to have enough people making works. Only when there is volume, can we have an industry. Look at Iran and Taiwan. There are gems coming out from these places. They do not make 1 film and there is 1 gem. They make 100 films and there are a few gems. The other 99 films need to be made even though they turn out bad because we learn by doing and by making mistakes.

J: Name me one mistake you made.

BT: I wanted to visit the Burning Man Festival in 2002 when I was in the states for exchange. It is an annual week-long arts event at Black Rock City, U.S. Every year, there are about 50,000 people who would gather there in the middle of the desert. None of my friends was interested to join me. I thought about it for a few days and decided to drive six hours on my own to the venue. I should have gone myself right from the beginning. I learn to be not afraid to walk alone, even though the path might be new and unfamiliar. For you will find another community of 50,000 strangers at the end of that journey.

J: Finally, would you starve for the sake of art?

BT: I would starve for anything that I believe in. Do I believe in art? (pause) I think I do. I believe in sacrifice. The extent you are willing to sacrifice for your passion shows how it matters to you. So the more accurate question to ask might be, how many days would I starve for art?

At TEDxYouth@Singapore in 2011, Bee Thaim speaks about why we make movies

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