Joel Yuen on 'Untitled (Working Class)' - shown at the 4th Experimental Film Forum

The 4th Experimental Film Forum was held at The Substation from 27 to 30 June 2013. It featured several new local works that were provocative, humorous and visually arresting. SINdie caught up with two of the featured filmmakers to find out more about their work.

First up is an interview with Joel Yuen, about his film “Untitled (Working Class)”. Catch his film here:

“Untitled (Working Class)” / Joel Yuen / 2013
By disrupting the public peace with a seemingly benign act, it can be deduced that people are highly adaptive to change.
Putting this video work in the context of the 2011 watershed general election,
it is a personal embodiment and protection of the political future of Singapore.
Will we eventually see the rise of the working class?

SINdie (S): Joel, do you consider “Untitled (Working Class)” more a film or a documentation of a performance? If it’s the latter, are any aspects of the performance enhanced or compromised in the filmed version? Did you direct your film crew, and was there much editing involved? What do you feel is “experimental” about the whole process? 

Joel Yuen (JY): The work is actually a hybrid of both. It is performative in nature, but the way I chose to shoot it, the mise en scène, they are all made in consideration for the camera, ultimately for the audience to experience the work mediated in the language of video/film. It is also neither fully a documentation or a fictional narrative film because both elements exist. The people’s reactions are unstaged, but yet, the protagonist (myself), is fictionalised and premeditated. These are the hybrid qualities which I sought to achieve, because by blending in various genres, I hope to get a stronger reaction and response from my audience, as they are both brought into a reality which plays with realism and fiction, documentary and staged performance.

I was the actor / director / producer, so in a way, this lo-no film requires no film crew other than the unfortunate people who happen to be around the time of filming. The editing was very minimal, just choosing segments of the footage which could capture the whole process from beginning to the climactic point of the balloon bursting. I did spend quite some time getting the colour and tone of the film fixed. I didn’t want it to look amateurish. There are certain requirements of craft and aesthetics which I still value in my work. The experimental part is definitely letting go of what to expect and just flow with the surroundings. This allows for “accidents” and “discoveries” to happen which is ultimately the real magic of the work.

S: Why did you choose to perform in the piece yourself, instead of having someone else do so? How do you think the piece would differ if more than one person performed?

JY: I wanted to perform it myself because I also do performance art. This is a form of expression in itself - to perform and be seen for the purpose of art making. I think performing alone for this project lends itself a certain credibility because it doesn’t seem like I was making a film at all. There was no crew, no artificial portable lights, no director calling the shot. With the presence of that, people would not react genuinely. So, it was the authenticity that I was after, so working alone was ideal. There was only me and a camera on a tripod, so that was rather inconspicuous.  

S: Did you interact with any of the subjects featured in your film? Did they pay attention to you and what were their reactions when the balloon burst? Did they address you directly?

JY: For the majority, I didn’t interact with anyone in the film. I just went straight into the view of the camera and performed, catching their reactions without warnings. For the last scene with the foreign workers, I just asked for permission if I could sit next to them, blow a balloon and film it. So, even they didn’t know I was going to blow a balloon till it burst.

S: I noticed that this film really seemed to draw the viewers in; there was nervous laughter in the audience as the balloon grew precariously bigger and bigger in each instance. I confess I was almost giggling; there’s something strangely delicious in seeing an innocent balloon—the stuff of kids’ birthday parties—cause such a commotion (or in some cases, not). Do you intend for your viewers to feel any sort of responsibility as they watch? Do you hope to evoke in them any particular reaction or to kick-start any thought process? 

JY: I like humour…I am starting to use more humour in my work as I think it is a fundamental form of human expression. Some people may not laugh out loud, but inside, I believe many people enjoy some form of humour. Essentially, I wanted to express the notion of soft power. Like you said, a seemingly non-violent toy, a harmless elastic material could still harness the power to cause some form of havoc, or the lack of it. This comments on how our national debate on politics and society is taking root. People vent on the Internet, at the coffee shops, on the free press, etc…Some seem harmless, some stronger like a viral video of someone cursing the government for example, as exemplified during election campaigns. The point I want to highlight is that our country is moving into a new form of national politics which has to be sensitive and rooted on the ground, to know what is happening around all the time from the elites to the working class or unemployed in order to stay relevant for any political party.

S: I love how in the final scene, the guy closest to you looks so amused and is intently watching you, while his peers are cheerful but more nonchalant! I imagined them all silently cheering you on. Insofar as “Untitled (Working Class)” is commentary on Singapore’s political future, what role do you think a sense of humour plays in where we’re headed from here?

JY: A sense of humour is crucial to the maturity of our society. Singapore lacks a sense of humour because people can’t laugh at themselves. This meritocratic society has made our egos too inflated. We all think we are a first class society. Yes, in terms of economics and standards of living, but the people are generally not. The majority can’t laugh at their low pay, their lousy family, their meaningless jobs. Most people in Singapore, as well as with most of the world, just put on masks…If a person is unable to laugh at themselves, it means the ego is too big. And only if a person can laugh at himself, he is aware of his imperfections, and indirectly, we can start to laugh at the imperfections of our own country and the systems. Yes, it is not perfect, there never will be a perfect society, but with humour, we can start to be less critical, think better of others because we are aware of our own shortcomings, and then, only then, can we start to talk about the future of Singapore in a matured, intelligent and sensitive way.

S: Thank you for your time, Joel!

Check back soon for SINdie’s interview with Ghazi Alqudcy, about his film “My Parents Are Animals”.

Interview by Aditi Shivaramakrishnan

Aditi Shiva works as an editor and is partial to semicolons. 

If her life were a movie, it'd be an animated indie Bollywood rom-com. 
She's just recently joined the SINdie Team.

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