STOP10 Jun 2017: 'Dolls Fall' and more @HOP Short Films

Have you ever made a short film that you're not even allowed to watch? That is the ironic plight faced by 15-year-olds Nirvan Emilio and Roisin Lee, who co-wrote and directed Dolls Fall, an NC16 short film that maturely explores various types of prejudice in today's society (co-directed with Jezreel Jean Lee). The film and two others, Containment (on mental illness and suicide) and Never Perfect (on body image and cyberbullying), were created as part of the Hot Off the Press (HOP) film project led by Singapore Creations, a non-profit organisation that provides young people (of ages 6-20 years) with a free creative platform to express their concerns, challenges, hopes and fears. The fruits of the HOP project are thus a testament to the uncanny maturity of our youths.

Dolls Fall is the most outwardly ambitious film in the HOP trifecta, since the film itself tackles three different forms of discrimination in one fell swoop, yet avoids being too preachy or becoming a downer. The film achieves this by using the horror-film trope of a young girl playing voodoo-style with various Barbie dolls in order to conjure up related scenes of prejudice. A creepy jewel-box melody, the girl's echo-y voiceover, desaturated plastic figurines, disorienting long takes -- all of these effects contribute to melding the film's more realistic scenes of discrimination into a greater, more sinister whole.

Particularly topical, given the recent Ah Boys to Men 4 furore over racial relations in Singapore, is a scene featuring candidates of three different races vying for the position of Student Council president. The film cycles through, in an easily digestible fashion, the various dynamics of racial prejudice that take place regardless of which candidate ends up winning the position. 'Dolls Fall' renders this scenario through the grotesque image of a three-headed Barbie, which imaginatively reminds us that, for better or worse, we all have to figure out how to share the same body.

For this month's STOP10, we interviewed the filmmakers behind Dolls Fall.

Nirvan and Roisin, how old are you? 

We both recently turned 16 so were 15 years old during the writing, rehearsing and directing of Dolls Fall.

How did you come up with the idea and story for the film?

ROISIN: It's surprising how the idea evolved so much from an initial misunderstanding about 'colour' as 'cholera' to dolls as a metaphor. The idea of telling the story through the eyes of a little girl stems from one of our participants who said she discriminated against those in her kindergarten class who were...let's say, not the same colour as she was. This really affected how we think because before that story, we would never have imagined children at the ripe age of 6 to be able to segregate themselves from their peers because of skin colour! What also struck us was how she was never told by anyone including her teachers & parents, that what she did was wrong and that led us to how we wanted to tell our story. Xenophobia starts young and only worsens as we grow older especially if we are unaware.

You dealt with a number of challenging issues like homophobia and racism. How do you feel about it?

NIRVAN:  We chose to focus on homophobia, racism and marginalisation of the disabled in our film because we felt these issues are pertinent to Singapore. When we started this project a year ago, the stories dominating the news were: the US Primaries, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, the controversial Chinese Laundry Detergent ad that went viral on Social Media, The Orlando Shootings, the US Muslim Ban and the list goes on!  What tied all those stories together was xenophobia. We researched homophobia and racism here in Singapore. The results were not very positive. SG is a multicultural Nation, yet 1 in 3 of our minority races feel discriminated against. SG has relatively strict laws about homosexuality compared to other advanced countries, and recent local and international news stories prove that homophobia is on the rise. And there is my personal experience with racism - I have very dark skin and have been the recipient of many racial slurs in my young life, even by my Chinese language teacher at school!

ROISIN: The main issue I have with people being racist, homophobic, and so on, is that they are so irrational and immature. Just because someone is different and leads a more “unorthodox” lifestyle, doesn’t give other people the right to discriminate or shame them. The marginalization of the disabled is an issue that angers me greatly whenever I think about it. No one asks to be disabled. Some have met with accidents while others were born with a physical disability and here we are, getting angry at them because they are too slow or taking up too much space on a bus. Humanity has fallen so low to be going after those less fortunate. People of different races, sexuality or physical or emotional disabilities are not here for us to pick on and make their lives worse. They are someone's brother, niece, parent. They do not deserve such irrational treatment just because we, who believe we are superior to them, lack the compassion and kindness to treat them the way they deserve! They are no less human because of a disability.

How do you feel about conversion therapy, as suggested in the film?

NIRVAN: We were trying for satire in the homophobic scene with the parents’ first reaction being denial, to waving off their daughter's “confession” as a teenage “phase”, to forcing conversion therapy on her so she will be "fixed". I do not support any kind of conversion therapy regarding sexuality or religion and we hope that the viewer will recognise that we are showing the parents' reaction as extreme, ridiculous and homophobic on purpose.

JEZREEL: Conversion therapy to me is like brainwashing and I do not support or condone it, but it is still happening to this day. And it is sad that we are seeing more and more of this kind of "conversion therapy" hidden in plain sight. Laws are being passed to ban those who practice a certain religion from entering a country, people are being forbidden/or forced to wear certain clothing items in public, and if they do not comply, they will be punished. If the people seeing our film feel the scene is ridiculous, then I hope they will also see the ridiculous attitudes and existing laws toward those who are considered “different” that are happening in the world right now.

ROISIN: I absolutely do not agree with conversion therapy. It is up to the individual to choose who they love, not their parents or therapist or society. I believe it is cruel to force someone to change their sexuality.

How did you work with the 3 actors who had to dish out prejudicial racial flaws in each other? How did they feel acting out something like that?

NIRVAN: Again we were going for satire with this scene. None of the actors changed their accents. Darren, the Chinese actor, wanted to dress up as a "nerd" based on the description of him by the other two characters. But he did not alter his speaking voice nor did Trisya or me.  I am half Indian but did not "put on an Indian accent" for the role. The 3 of us were very aware of the point we were trying to make in that scene: A lot of people will resort to racial or sexist or religious slurs when they don't get what they want or feel threatened.

JEZREEL: Each of the actors, had met with racial slurs from others and some have even been racist themselves without realising it.   They never thought it was a bad thing until we started discussing the lines in rehearsal. Then all of us realised how quick we are to dish out insults based on racial, gender or religious stereotypes. The actors used personal experiences and specific language they had heard to act out the scene. They too wanted to let the audience know how ridiculous each of us are when we are faced with jealousy or defeat or fear.  The actors asked if they could use harsher descriptions like those they personally experienced but we were concerned that the film would be censored so we kept the actual slurs more moderate.

In the light of the recent Ah Boys to Men 4 audition saga, do you think it is offensive to ask a person to speak in an exaggerated version of his accent? Or is it ok depending on the situation?

Since we didn't ask any of our actors to change or exaggerate an accent, the question doesn't apply to our film.  But in lieu of that fact that we just spent a year looking beyond the headlines of any given news story and researching for the facts, discerning the truth from the hype, and then making a more informed opinion on the issue, the last thing we want to do is react to this current controversial story without further investigation and discussion! 

The three Hot Off the Press films (Containment, Dolls Fall, Never Perfect) will be screened to the public on 10 June at *SCAPE - Gallery, Level 5.

Written by Colin Low
For the full list of June 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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