@SGIFF2015: Production Talk with Ng Xi Jie on 'Singapore Minstrel'

Roy Payamal is the wildest busker of a country ranked the world’s most emotionless society. He takes his undermined line of work as a serious art- but is his faith impossible idealism or an admirable conviction? 'Singapore Minstrel', directed by Ng Xi Jie, screened at the recent Singapore International Film Festival, is an invitation into his beautiful mind, a magical, trying universe where art and life dialogue in a tropical dream. 
An old-time pioneer of the local busking scene, sometimes dubbed the ‘Silver Man’, Roy creates spectacular installations for his mind-boggling acts. His street colleagues are a troupe of offbeat, seasoned buskers– from a 70-year-old man who dances Gangnam Style with vitality, to a lovable guitarist trying to pass the busking auditions. The film flows kaleidoscopically from interviews to fantasy sequences, to raw footage of everyday life Roy captures on his mobile phone. 

Unraveling Roy's busking journey and the nation's bureaucratic reaches, the film spotlights a gang of eccentric underdogs, examining what culture means in a hard-fisted, glittering metropolis. 'Singapore Minstrel' is about trying to paint the meaning of freedom and magic. It is about being human. 

We speak to Xi Jie to trace this musical, lyrical journey into the world of Singapore buskers.
How did the idea for this film come about?
The journey to make this film began a few years ago when I started documenting my romantic partner Roy's shows in Orchard Road, believing the footage would be useful someday. He would sleep a few hours a night, then continue his work, often with new ideas-from dazzling to obsessively mundane. What he was doggedly creating felt startlingly important, yet happened quietly or so it seemed without proper documentation, though he was a revolution in the heartlands. And how many revolutions happen in Singapore everyday? There were also periods where he would get stuck and didn't work for days. I struggled to understand his complex modus operandi as a fascinating world unravelled through him. I got to know the ins and outs of busking, heard countless busking stories, learnt about local busking history, and became friends with an eccentric breed.

Xi Jie at the SGIFF 2015 post-screening Q and A.

Are you a busker as well?
No I'm not, but I certainly want to busk one day. To me, it's one of the most fascinating professions ever. It's a magical, ancient way of life.

What first ignited your interest in busking?
I've been intrigued by buskers since I was a child. There's something completely magical about a travelling performer, or someone who makes his/her money on the streets. I got to know more about the busking universe when I met Roy four years ago.

What were the biggest surprises for you in the busking scene and were these all depicted in the documentary?
I wasn't surprised by much but if I had to pick I'd say that it was really nice to realise that all the buskers we met were each very special individuals with their own eccentricities, and a unique view on busking. Hopefully the delightfully interesting and intriguing bits of them came through. Even though I knew Roy was a fixture in the busking scene, I was still pleasantly surprised that so many buskers held Roy in high regard. We were able to interview and film many of them because they trusted Roy.

The film depicts buskers being asked to go through auditions and a selection process. But apparently, this is not unique to Singapore as according to Xi Jie's research, other countries exercise these 'quality control' measures as well. She addresses this in a segment of the Q and A.

Is this the first time Roy has been featured in a film or any form of recorded content? 
No, he's been in countless documentary shorts over the last few decades. Almost every month, he has poly or university students requesting to film him and he usually obliges, seeing it as a good chance to get better at being interviewed. Many of these films are lost in the wind- most of them never get back to him. I wanted to make something completely unlike anything that had ever been made about him, almost like a semi-definitive film about Roy.
From the Q and A, Roy certainly had a lot to express in terms of his feelings as a busker in Singapore. How was it like working with Roy, being both your partner and your subject? Did you get into any disagreements and what were they?
Working with Roy was great; he was very open and had magical ideas we'd never think of. It was extremely generous of him to allow us to depict different sides of him in the film, even facades of himself he was uncomfortable with. I can't believe the number of times he watched the film over and over in the process; it isn't easy to see oneself on screen. Him being my lover meant I had almost complete access to his life. At times it was hard to decide what to include in the film and what not to, because life was unfolding every day and I knew all the details. 

The film was very personal in many ways. I had an archive of tunes and videos Roy would record on his iphone and send to me over the years. I love the tunes because they’re very whimsical, heartfelt and evidently come from someone who can’t sing well, but enjoys making up these little wonderful, strange ditties. The videos capture his view of the universe, which a lot of the time, was his corner in Ang Mo Kio. It’s a beautiful way of looking at Singapore, and his world.  In the film, the tunes and videos are combined to create raw, meditative montages. This came about because somewhere along the way, I had the revelation that a film about busking is necessarily also about everyday life, to find that intersection between art and life. And so I curated this personal archive cum treasure chest I had.

Our disagreements came mainly after the film was finished. Upon looking back, I realised there were some things I could've consulted him more on, such as costume choices. But there is nothing major we disagree on and he's been very proud and excited about this entire adventure.

Roy says it as it is at the Q and A, not afraid to discuss his struggles openly at the screening.

Any last words about the film or future plans?
Near the end of two years, after going though various iterations, the film eventually revealed itself as rooted in Roy and his universe, extending to a discourse in busking and culture. It is a letter to and about Roy, a way of understanding him and telling the world about him. As much as it is about the subject matter, it is also about developing a filmmaking approach where fantasy and reality dance with each other to illuminate little truths and make bigger magic. 'Singapore Minstrel' is an oxymoron that doesn't have to be non-existent. Beyond sending the film to local and overseas festivals, I hope to show it to more Singaporeans (especially the Tampines neighbourhood, since the film features some of the buskers) as a way of looking at freedom, magic, the crazy ones and ourselves.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Read more about this movie on SGIFF website and www.singaporeminstrel.com 

Trailer for 'Singapore Minstel'
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