Independent Filmmaking in Singapore - A Brave 10 Years

An 'all-stars' shot on the set of The Lucky Seven Project, taken in 2007, that features some of the most active figures and voices in independent filmmaking today

Singapore went into a filmmaking coma from the late 70s into the early 90s. And to think Singapore used to be busily making 200-300 films in 50s and was ahead of Hong Kong in the game then. Looking at the current flurry of filmmaking efforts, begs the question of when we woke up from the coma. ‘Mee Pok Man’ was almost a buzzword in the late 90s when it signaled the existence of filmmaking activity then. ‘Money No Enough’ seemed like the next sign of a resurgence. Then came ’12 Storeys’. But all in all, it seemed like the efforts of a few men (Jack Neo, Eric Khoo or Glen Goei) who saw the possibility of filmmaking in Singapore earlier than many others. There was still a nagging thought: how about ‘normal’ people like us? Can we make films too?

The year 2003 marked the beginning of a few platforms that seemed to help surface new names in independent filmmaking. The Substation started its monthly programme called First Takes, where anyone could air their first films to the public. The rule was ‘don’t judge, just air’. First Takes stood the middle-ground between film practitioners and hobbyists. It offered film practitioners a chance for a quick public feedback while it also gave film hobbyists who didn’t feel confident enough to submit their films to film festivals a chance to screen their finished product without hiring a venue.

In the same year, the ‘Fly By Night’ video challenge was started by film curator Yuni Hadi and filmmaker Tan Pin Pin. This brought many people, particularly of a young age, together to make a video based on a theme  over a weekend. Over the years, it soon became a ‘social-leveller’ in filmmaking, telling the man-on-the-street that you can create your own cool videos without a big crew and a lot of time. Not to mention, the Objectifs Centre of Photography and Film was also started in 2003, providing an opportunity for wannabe-filmmakers to get basic level knowledge of filmmaking, and in particular, digital filmmaking. 

Naturally, ‘Fly By Night’ and Objectifs signaled the start of the digital-filmmaking revolution which lowered the barriers to filmmaking and allowed anyone with a story to tell to pick up the camera and just shoot. Till today, filmmaker Kan Lume sets the record for making a feature length film on DV camera with just under $1000. That film was ‘The Art of Flirting’.

Finally, also in 2003, Singapore Short Cuts, a more selectively curated screening of Singapore short films, was launched. This was like a ‘Best of Singapore Shorts’ showcase which brought prominence to several names in independent filmmaking over the years like Victric Thng, Eva Tang, Boo Junfeng and Wee Li Lin.

So in fact, one can argue that the current movement that we see in the film community or even film fraternity is roughly 10 years old. David Lee, Vice-President of the Singapore Film Society, recalls that when he returned from university in Australia in late 2002, ‘filmmakers like Sun Koh, Han Yew Kwang were just starting out, and so were a slew of other filmmakers like Tzang Merwyn Tong who continue to be active today.’ Sun Koh won the Silver Hugo Award with her first short film ‘My Secret Heaven’, Han Yew Kwang won ‘Best Short Film’ at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2002. At the same time, Royston Tan’s seminal short film ‘15’ (picture below) also surfaced in the scene, having won several awards overseas. David adds, ’You can feel there's a burgeoning film community with a new generation of filmmakers, a 2nd wave of filmmakers whom I will refer to as the post-2000 wave.’

Indeed, there was a newly-found courage imminent in the scene and the name Royston Tan (in the rabbit suit above) somehow had embodied this courage. His short films won him numerous awards from various film festivals. He was named TIME magazine’s Top 20 Asian heroes in 2004. While being hailed as the new poster boy of Singapore cinema then, he was also tagged as being the L’enfant terrible of the scene, for being unflinchingly straight-talking in his style, unabashedly ‘obscene’ and honest in his depiction of street kids and in general, eschewing traditional cinematic storytelling rules with so much gusto. This was important for the filmmaking movement then as it bestowed it with a spirit of experimentation and adventure that went hand in hand with the new opportunities presented by ‘Fly By Night’, ‘Singapore Short Cuts’, ‘First Takes’ and the digital revolution in general.

The film ‘Ilo Ilo’ was certainly the story of the year in 2013 and needless to say, Anthony Chen was 2013’s poster boy. Anthony really emerged in the scene in the middle of this 10-year resurgence. In 2007, his short film ‘Ah Ma’ was the first Singapore short film to be competing in the Cannes Film Festival Short Film section and he won a Special Mention Award. He belongs to a generation of filmmakers who dug a little deeper into society, going beyond the sensation and mood that earlier filmmakers may have sought to explore. Boo Junfeng (pictured below), who earned his following from winning awards at the Singapore International Film Festival, was like a generational companion to Anthony. His films often peered into sensitive social, and sometimes, political issues. Despite his young age, his films often displayed a maturity beyond his years. David (Singapore Film Society)calls them part of the 3G (third generation) of Singapore filmmakers, with Jack Neo and Eric Khoo being part of the first; Royston Tan, Sun Koh, Wee Li Lin and Tan Pin Pin being part of the second.

This ‘3G’ class is a thoughtful, almost pensive class. They explore issues hard and deep, have very individualistic takes on things and delightfully, they vary greatly in their artistic approaches. Anthony and Junfeng aside, there is Liao Jiekai whose well-travelled first feature film ‘Red Dragonflies’ took a meditative view on change and growing-up in Singapore. There was also Loo Zihan who pushed the boundaries on sexuality in film with films like Solos and Pleasure Factory and also spoke for artistic integrity in his valedictorian speech, which was a protest against the school authorities asking him to change his final year film poster.

While the bold strides these films made in the cinematic craft did not always find a sizeable audience in Singapore, there was always the film festival circuit audience willing to soak up these films and give due recognition to their works. Yuni Hadi, film curator, founder of Objectifs and Producer of ‘Ilo Ilo’ said, ’The interest film programmers have taken in Southeast Asian films in the last decade have created an international audience for us and opened up the world of critics and festival awards which have helped boost the interest in stories from our region. I remember sending out Singapore short films on VHS to festivals and cultural institutions overseas more than 10 years ago and very few people wanted to collaborate or even knew where Singapore was.’

Alongside this ‘3G’ emergence, from 2007, Singapore seemed to be seeing a start of the ‘professionalisation’ of filmmaking with the ‘mushrooming’ of educational institutions offering formal courses in film. NTU emerged with a filmmaking programme, comprehensive enough to compete with Ngee Ann Polytechnic even though it was not focused on using actual film, but more digital. Then came the NYU Tisch School of the Arts as well as the La Salle College Putnam School of Film (pictured below) which both offered graduate programs in film. At the secondary school level, filmmaking groups emerged as CCAs replacing the relatively unsexy cousin, the AV (audio-visual) club. Evidently, there has been a greater demand for a proper film education. If a teenager was to tell his or her parents that he was going to film school, chances are, they may not nag about the impracticalities of a film career and actually be rather accepting.  

The spreading of film education seemed to the second ‘leveller’ after the digital filmmaking revolution. In the last few years, film competitions like cine65, the 48 Hour Film Project, the New Paper First Film Fest and a dozen other mini film contests from a bevy of government statutory boards and corporations have lured entries from a widened pool of people, and in particular students (not just film students). In 2011, 13-year old Amos Yee took the top prize at the New Paper’s First Film Fest, suggesting how kids these days in Singapore may be starting to harbour Steven Speiberg or Martin Scorsese dreams. Aishah Abu Bakar, Programme Manager of the Substation’s Moving Images programme, remarks that ‘everyone, including secondary and primary school students can make films now’. Having been at the receiving point of film submissions for First Takes and the Singapore Short Film Awards for the past 4-5 years, she testifies to seeing how filmmaking is no longer the exclusive turf of a handful of individuals, ‘I think the scene is very vibrant. I'm particularly encouraged seeing younger filmmakers' works, from SOTA, some ITEs, and some polytechnic final year projects. They can surprise you with their depth, and the ideas or concepts behind these films, and I think it's so great that they feel empowered to try their hand at filmmaking as a form of expression.’

10 years on in 2013, it seems we have arrived at the point where the big boys no longer have the best ideas and a generation whose sensitivities and sensibilities are honed on Facebook and Twitter are giving the occasional wise cracks in our film lingo. They just don’t have the experience, equipment and possibly the entourage (of the usual collaborators like DOP, sound etc). David (Singapore Film Society) quips, ’I can already see signs of a 4G - Singaporeans below 25 years old, becoming active in film screenings and talking about films, and most importantly starting to make films. What's interesting to note is that the younger generations are all if not primarily graduates from film schools, the film schools brats if you would, and coming from quite different backgrounds from the 1st generation early pioneers.’

Anthony (pictured above), who won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and the Best Feature Film award at Golden Horse for ‘Ilo Ilo’ could be considered a product of a comprehensive film education, having gone from Ngee Ann Polytechnic to the National Film and Television School (in UK). And the disciplined approach to filmmaking was rather evident in ‘Ilo Ilo’. Therefore, with a 4th generation of new filmmakers, properly schooled, well-grounded in theory, are we ready to expect a Singapore New Wave of cinema? According to Yuni (producer of ‘Ilo Ilo’), ‘We’re in a good time because we are surrounded by a generation of practitioners who believe that we have a chance to grow beyond what we already have.’

One must not forget that Anthony’s success is also the success of relentless conviction to a dream, where textbooks and theory are only half the formula, where the journey to making the film is most of the time lonely. The fact that filmmaking has been ‘democratised’ to the wider population, resulting in more people pursuing the dream, may not necessarily increase our chances of winning more awards in the future. But it cannot be denied that there is a certain camaraderie that has been developed among the currently active independent filmmakers in which Anthony’s win was almost seen as everyone’s win, and that surely has a mutually-galvanising effect on each other to bring the bar higher. Yuni adds, ‘It is more important now more than ever that we stand together as community to move forward’. 

The article is written by Jeremy Sing, editor of SINdie and he dedicates this article to Bertrand Lee, who is making a comeback in filmmaking this year with a Mandarin film called ‘The Abandoned’. Bertrand Lee was a pioneering filmmaker who belonged to the post-2000 class of filmmakers. His career was interrupted when a truck mowed him down in Mumbai in 2005 and he lost his left leg.
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