Production Talk with Natalie Khoo on 'On Such and Such a Day, At Such and Such a Time'

'On Such and Such a Day, At Such and Such a Time' was awarded Best Documentary and Best Cinematography (Teo Qi Yu) at the recent 5th Singapore Short Film Awards.

An intimate portrait of the filmmaker's Grandma, which marries classic documentary, fictional narration and confessional drama. Natalie and her Grandma, Ellen's relationship is something that is on the brink of change. As Natalie moves out and prepares to leave the comforts of home, old photographs are unearthed, leading to a time of recollection for Grandma. The film unfolds as a series of conversations, interspersed with Ellen's highly personal reminiscences of her life both past and present. As the two recount family life, memories and dreams surface.
(synopsis by Warren Sin)

" In one of their conversations, Grandma Ellen is seen painting lotus flowers in her room. She gives an account painting a patch of lotus flowers in the pond: "There are a lot of details I cannot see.. far away in the pond". This realisation encapsulates the essence of the short film that details of one's life are always more lucid in retrospect. The attempt to capture the details of lived experience - Grandma is shown painting, reading the newspaper, going to the gallery and swimming - reveal that moments are simultaneously essential and fleeting. Yet, it is the process of capturing - whether in the position of seeing one's paintings in a gallery, or lived experiences through the lens-  that empowers the sharing of a portrait of a time past, and an intimate ode to a loved one. This is a film for my grandma Ellen." - Natalie Khoo

What prompted the telling of such a personal story?
I suppose I started with wanting to make my own time capsule of this moment in life - of both my grandmother's and mine.I wrote and made the film when i was 18 years old, in my last year of school. I was in a liminal position, feeling that a new stage in life awaited me. I was moving away from the comforts of home whether I liked it or not, however you want to define home - as country, as family or even encapsulated in a single person. In this case, home was my grandmother. I saw the surroundings - her room, her garden and her art as extensions of her female creative energy. I was also trying to express greater concerns of the woman and the return to origin (life, death, rebirth) through personal ways. Though ultimately, it's a letter for a loved one.  

What has the whole experience – eg filming, editing, screening, been like ?
The experience of writing, "acting", directing and later editing has been new and unexpected. In my writing, I wanted to fit my grandma and me as real people into a fictionalized setting. In a sense, a fictionalized memoir. Qiyu, my cinematographer and I planned for a very intentional dreamy aesthetic, which further blurs the line between fiction and reality. We had a budget of under $100 and two crew members - Qiyu and myself, so it was a very organic and fluid process. When we started shooting, because my grandma was more comfortable being herself than being constrained by any form of a script (no matter how loosely defined), we ended up shooting things that were real. I don' t think I began wanting to make a documentary, strictly speaking.  I was more interested in capturing the sentiment of moments both past and present. We redefined what was originally planned as we shot. treading between past and present, dream and reality, my grandmother's story that was inadvertently part of my own, was something handled during the editing process. So it was very much about reviewing and thinking about what the film could, or should, express, long after the script was completed. 
As it was our final IB film project (Equivalent to A levels), I never imagined it to be screened anywhere else besides our school hall, so for it to be shared with a lot more people than expected is very exciting and also encouraging. 

Tell us a bit about the experience after the film has been made and released – do you have any reflections looking at the released work?
I think I was in a vacuum when I was making the film, trying to find a balance between making something I truly wanted to make, and submitting something for my IB exam. My film teachers Michael Wang and Liao Jiekai told me to go for it and that the latter concern would somehow resolve itself. In the end, we made a cut for the exams and the longer cut is what we presented to others. Looking back, the film is very specific to that period of time, the last year of school for me. I would never be able to make it again and i don't think it would be necessary to. 

What was the experience like being part of, and winning, at the Short Film Awards?
A very very humbling experience, it was also a expression of appreciation and kindness by everyone, the judges, fellow filmmakers and the audience . I'm very happy to have had the privilege of being a part of it. Also, I really liked Daniel Hui's Animal Spirits. 

What was the most difficult part about making this film?
The most difficult part were the moral questions. The re-telling of a story always involves selecting snapshots of the truth. History, whether personal or shared is always problematic to piece together, and on a personal level, was the most difficult part about making this film. It is both my grandmother's and my story, but our perspectives do not always intersect. in the making of this semi-documentary, I found it tough to balance the objective with many versions of the subjective. 

Can you share any interesting anecdotes/experiences in the process of making this film?
In the birthday scene, my cinematographer Qiyu and I lit 50 or more tea light candles because we didn't want to use artificial lights. It was a fire hazard, but hopefully one that paid off. Also, the birthday scene was one of the few completely fictional scenes. The title comes from a teochew folk tale that my grandma used to tell me when I was small. Though it was teochew in origin, she would tell it to me in English. The story is quite long but it's about a peach blossom god and a threshold god, and a worried mother. "On such and such a day, at such and such a time, the mother would stand behind the main door and shout for her son". It's about a window in time, a longing for family. and the way my grandma says it is very distinct 

Who are your influences in filmmaking? Any favourite directors?
For this particular film, Naomi Kawase was a key influence, for both her documentary style as well as her emphasis on the woman's perspective in cinema, a realm that can be slightly male-centric. Speaking of which, I have a deep appreciation for great Satyajit Ray and Edward Yang 

Have you decided on your future plans?
I'm going to college in September and will most likely study Social Anthropology. I'm keen to look further into visual ethnography within this field. That's like marrying Anthropology and Film, which is interesting for me. 

The short film also received coverage on the BBC Culture Programme

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