Production Talk with Michael Kam on 'Detour'

Michael continues his motif of children characters in his short films and to be exact young little boys. His first short film Di (Brother) which won him Best Director at the Singapore International Film Festival Silver Screen awards was a simple, unassuming film about two brothers playing and their relationship dynamics. He continued his passion in children-themed movies with Masala Mama which participated at the prestigious 60th Berlin International Film Festival - Generation Kplus competition. He returns to the same territory with his latest short film Detour, recently screened at the 10th Singapore Short Cuts. Here is the brief synopsis:

A hot humid uneventful day. A taxi driver has trouble controlling his young sons, embroiled in a childish, petty rivalry. They continue this rivalry outside, until a sudden encounter with a stranger shatters their innocence forever.

We speak to Michael Kam about Detour.

You continue to feature brotherly relationship dynamics in your latest short film Detour, like your previous short film, Little Brother, why the fascination with little boys (pardon the language!)?

In my opinion, children know much more than what we assume they know. Then, when I was a kid, and even more so now, with their ability to access a wide pool of media these days. All the while, I've been very inspired by a lot of films of that vein, from the older films like Ozu's "I was Born, But..." (one of the few silent films that made me cry), De Sica's "The Children are Watching Us", to Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows" and Gabriele Salvatores' "I'm Not Scared".  And I like to explore that territory in my short films. A lot of the key moments and impressions in my life were vividly "captured" when I was a child, be it when I was transported to a whole new universe when I opened a comic book for the first time, or when I was stuck in the same lift with the girl I had my first crush on, or when I was unknowingly made by my teacher to sit next to the class bully as a "sacrificial lamb", etc. I guess in a little way, I am living my youth through my child talents when I make these short films, which express quite personal aspects of my life in one way or another. 

What inspired the story for this short film and how did you go about developing it?
This story is fictional, but it dwells on aspects about being a victim and being a parent of a victim, both of which are areas that I wanted to touch on in my film. On the subject of victimization, something of this sort happened to me a long time ago. It took me the longest time to get a clear grip of what happened. This film allowed me in some ways to revisit it, confront it, in some way come to terms with it. And just as importantly for me, I wanted to express that as long as there is someone out there who can reach out to a victim, even in a small way, it would be a small step in the long journey towards healing. That was something I was really hoping to convey in the film. As a parent, one cannot be looking over the shoulder of our kids for people who may potentially bully and victimise them in one way or another. This is especially so when parents are distracted by so many things in life. There is no simple answer to such a problem, and in a small way, I wanted to express this feeling in the film. 

You have a knack for directing children as seen in your earlier short film 'Masala Mama' as well, how do you do it?

I'm not sure if I have a knack for directing children, but maybe I've been lucky as the child talents I've been referred to, or have found, are, for the most part quite fun to work with. The energy and vibe the child talents bring to the projects I've been on, be it during rehearsals and on set are great. I for one am happy collaborating with them in such an environment.

Why the decision to make the film in black and white?
I was trying to make a film in the spirit of the early neo-realist films of De Sica such as "Bicylce Thieves" and "Umberto D.", which were in black and white. So the black and white look for the film was partially a homage to that. There is also to me a certain level of purity to the black and white image, which suited the tone and the nature of the subject matter for the film.

How did you convince the young boy to be in a scene with sexual content? Is he aware? And how did he agree to it?

My producer Mabelyn spoke to the parents of the child talents involved and they were the first people whom we felt we had to get on board to proceed on this project. Once they were agreeable to having the child talents involved in a work that touched on such a subject matter, I went about giving the child talents a sense of the context of the story during the rehearsal process. The elder child talent was more aware of the subject matter while it was not as easy to convey to the younger boy, but he was aware that it was a form of victimization.  

What were the greatest challenges in making this film? (funding? getting parents' permission? casting? etc)
There were plenty of challenges in the making of this film, but to me, one of the biggest challenges was just about getting the ball rolling on this project. After I wrote the script and got some funding from MDA, I struggled for a long time to find a producer who was available to work on this project. I was looking for someone who understood what I was trying to do and whom I would be comfortable working with. I must really thank Jeremy Chua, whom I met after the Singapore Shot Film Awards '11 for introducing me to Mabelyn Ow. She liked the story enough to want to take the project on as producer, and gave me more confidence in taking on this film. The momentum for this project built from there, and I am thankful to her for her continued encouragement throughout the filmmaking process. 

Michael Kam poses (in the middle) with his entire production crew (in a blue t-shirt and cap)
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