Film Review: Sementara (2020)

“Sementara” is Malay for temporary, or as the filmmakers, Joant Ubeda and Chew Chia Shao Min, more poetically put it, “transient”. Its title is reminiscent of Ron Fricke’s Baraka or Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi—a word translated into a native tongue to create an air of mystery. Case in point, a film titled “Transient” would hardly be as striking. While Sementara may not be as visually impeccable as the works of Fricke or Reggio, it offers great insight into the Singapore psyche through its intimate conversations with people around the island. 

With Singapore’s SG50 celebrations serving as the film’s backdrop, the filmmakers interview people from all walks of life to discuss issues of race, religion, sexuality, and identity. The filmmakers could have very well interviewed the organisers of Pink Dot or even the pastor of a church. However, the film is not so much interested in representatives of these groups as it is with representing the people who belong to them.

Sementara doesn’t subscribe to the typical documentary pastiche. Interviews are not punctuated by PhD holders spouting sociological nomenclature. Instead, the filmmakers adopt an ethnographic lens akin to Krzysztof Kielslowski’s Talking Heads. Participants are given the time to say their piece, unfiltered and unchallenged.

It may be easy to write off this laissez-faire approach as being erratic, but I’d argue that it works in the film’s favour. There is sincerity in spontaneity. Unlike contemporary documentaries (a la any Netflix Docuseries), the unnamed participants in Sementara can’t rehearse their responses under studio lights. The filmmakers give them space to think out loud, which allows viewpoints to reveal themselves organically. Each viewpoint is juxtaposed with another. A local who dislikes Chinese Nationals versus a Chinese National who has since become a Singapore Citizen. Tearful mourners at Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral versus fervid #FreeAmosYee protestors.

The format lends an impartiality to the topics covered, granting the viewer an opportunity to decide their own place on the matter. It’s refreshing to have the ball thrown into the audience’s court rather than have a pseudo-expert tell us what to think.

Interestingly, I noticed that Singapore’s 50th anniversary doesn’t anchor all the topics that the film covers. The film could have been set a year before or after, and most of the issues discussed would have remained consistent. Yet, the emphasis the filmmakers place on the Golden Jubilee is unmistakable.

After all, the film opens and closes with coverage of the National Day Parade that year. There is some evidence to suggest that this started out with a narrower focus on events that transpired in 2015. Footage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral and the #FreeAmosYee campaign are uniquely 2015, but hardly the focus of the final film. Like many documentaries, it’s possible that the final product outgrew its initial intentions. Thankfully so, and the fact that this remains topical after 6 years is a testament to the breadth of the issues ultimately covered. 

That said, the film doesn’t highlight any new issues, nor does it delve that much deeper into existing ones. Granted, there’s only so much you can gather from a casual interview with a passerby. That’s the cost of being observational rather than analytical. What you gain in breadth you stand to lose in depth.

There’s something else I wanted to highlight. The film’s official synopsis states, “Using the themes captured through intimate interviews, the film follows threads that lead back to certain universal truths”. I disagree. In a country as diverse as Singapore, topics are bound to be divisive, and Sementara exemplifies that. If anything, the film proves that it’s impossible to determine a universal truth. I suppose what the filmmakers meant is our capacity to come together in spite of our differences. Even then, social cohesion isn’t absolute. In which case, the discussion of “truth” should surround that of personal truth. 

As much as the participants in Sementara try to speak for others, in reality they can only speak for themselves. The same could be said about any one of us. Our attempts to speak for a collective are really just extensions of self. At its best, Sementara reflects the nuances in our beliefs. As a portrait of Singapore, I’d argue that it’s a celebration of our individual foibles, and the divergences that underpin our society. 

Review by Charlie Chua.

This film won the Audience Choice Award at the 2020 Singapore International Film Festival.

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