Review: I Dream of Singapore (2019) @SGIFF

A construction worker suffers from a ghastly gash on his abdomen. A poet speaks to eager, young students. A young man in a “I Love Singapore” shirt weeps as he prays. While these three figures may seem disparate in relation, they are all connected by their roles as Bangladeshi migrant workers based in Singapore. This background forms the core of I Dream of Singapore, a documentary film by award-winning filmmaker Lei Yuan Bin, which explores the Bangladeshi migrant community in Singapore. 

The documentary revolves around the journey of Feroz, a migrant worker. Feroz suffered a terrible injury on his abdomen at a construction site and was denied proper medical treatment by his employer. Now under the care of social workers from Dayspace, he awaits his return home. We witness the recovery of Feroz, alongside the acute loneliness he faces for most of his days. By trailing a single migrant worker’s journey back home, the film expands its vision from individual to community: we are invited to the migrant’s home, family, and the larger community of Bangladesh as well.

A key moment in the film is when Feroz bids farewell to his case worker, a kindly gentleman who is always brimming with compassion. The scene is unexpectedly emotional, as they hug and embrace each other; some tears are even shed. With the genuineness and unfiltered sincerity of both individuals shining through, this was one of the most heartfelt moments in the film.

I Dream of Singapore plays with juxtapositions. Scenes frequently transition between the two different locations, Singapore and Bangladesh, with little context or warning given. Mid-way into the film, we are treated to the sights of the bustling streets of Bangladesh, a hive of moment and life both in day and night. Flooded streets bustle with all sorts of vehicles, producing a cacophony of city life. A man tells us: “Bangladesh’s zero point is here.” In the day, we see street vendors, traders and farmers; one particular Bangladeshi painter stands amidst greenery, alone, indulged in his own artistic practice and without a care for the world.

Suddenly, we are back in the solitude of a dormitory in Singapore with Feroz. Apart from his mobile device, silence fills the air. There is a blatant contrast between the cacophonies of street life and that of the room’s silence; the transition between life and loneliness makes the plight faced by Feroz all the more tragic. But when we compare the Bangladeshi painter and Feroz, we realize that different types of solitude exist: one that is painful and lonely, as represented by Feroz, and another that is peaceful and desirable, as represented by the painter.

Lei also tends to takes the viewer into one country and then into the other, while maintaining the focus around the respective Bangladeshi communities in both countries. Thus, it can be difficult to make out where exactly Lei has placed us (the viewer) at first glance: is this scene situated in Bangladesh or Singapore? Are the statuses of these individuals now as citizens or as migrants? These juxtapositions probe on the parallels between the urban landscapes of these two countries, and more importantly, raises the question on the inextricable relationship between one's social role and social environment. 

Yet, this film is not meant for everyone. Despite its lean run-time of 78 minutes, a large portion of the film is dedicated to lengthy sequences that depict nothing more than the daily routines of the Bangladeshi migrant. Most scenes were on-the-fly and slow-paced, often with little to no action occurring. Scenes that rapidly transitioned from one place to another were also rather confusing due to the lack of narrative context, making the film not as lucid as it could have been. Indeed, the film humanizes the migrant workers as individuals—people with emotions, feelings and families too—but further development of this emotional connection with the audience is limited by these restrictions. 

Perhaps the film’s emotional impact could have been more profound if the documentary felt less stretched out. Or maybe Lei intended to strive for a format that reflected the reality of life for these workers through a film that was largely unfiltered and raw. Of these views, I leave the viewer to be their own judge.

Undeniably, I Dream of Singapore successfully casts a humanizing light on the trials and tribulations of migrant workers in Singapore. By doing so, Lei gives a voice back to these migrant communities and reminds the viewer that they, too, are but only human. More frighteningly, through tracing Feroz's conundrum, viewers are presented with the fact that the violation of human rights can still exist in the modern day, even within contemporary Singapore. Review by Bryson Ng I Dream of Singapore makes its world premiere at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival.
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