Sunday, November 29, 2020

Street encounters.

18 November 2020.

Encounter 1, Putu Piring stall.
Uncle refuses payment.
“No need. I know who you are. My grandson in JC watched your film about the barber shop. Now I have hope. Every time I cut my hair at the barber, I will remember how you made it possible for my grandson”.

Encounter 2, Singpost brudder on meal break.
“Next time make a documentary about us lah, the postmen”
I tried to catch his drift. And then I remembered the profile documentary I did about security guards early this year.
We both laughed.
“Don’t forget about us, ‘bang.”

Awkward encounters from random folks on the streets. Perhaps these are ones that are more meaningful than the ratings and awards. 

It’s one thing to be validated on the streets for your work but to get acknowledged while wearing a mask..!


WIRA KITA season 2

I was involved in the production of WIRA KITA "Our Heroes" season 2.

Directing this series (and being involved hands-on during the research and scripting processes) saw me returning to my first love - storytelling. Crafting documentary stories of real, living people is more challenging that writing dramatic fiction. I have always been curious about people and their personal journey. I craft their respective stories based on how I see these individuals.

Most importantly, I want to showcase the humanity that makes their journey special.

Absolutely loving the National Gallery location.

Running through the keypoints with guest and host. This was one of the first interview sessions. It was after the first interview session that I will find out if the host can carry through the interview questions with the guest. I will take over when I realise that the host are not able to. (See 2nd past post caption)

The series has total of 5 episodes but I was only involved in episodes 1-4. The series premiered on 19 October 2020 on Mediacorp Suria channel and streaming on MeWatch.

Wira Kita profiles individuals who make a difference to the community with their deeds. These individuals are,

Episode 1 (Volunteer and Social Worker); Sarimah Ithnin and Rahimah A Rahim
The pandemic brings out the worst and best in people. Sarimah and Rahimah showed that humanity exists in times of need. The full lockdown circuit breaker that was first imposed in late April 2020 had made some segments of the community, especially the elderly and those living below the poverty line, to be greatly affected due to their supply chain of daily essentials being cut off. Meanwhile on the other spectrum, racism and prejudice reared their heads while the more important issue at hand is about securing measures to keep everyone safe and not start pointing fingers.

Pre-shoot research with Rahimah A Rahim

Episode 2 (Physically handicapped); Danial Bawthan "The Wheelsmith" and Nuraziana Mohd Said
Physically handicapped does not mean handicapped at living. These two individuals showed how adversity has turned their life around when peppered with positivity and sense of adventure at what life has to offer. 
Pre-shoot research with Danial Bawthan

Pre-shoot research with Nuraziana and her husband, Iskandar

Episode 3 (Youth); Aminur Rashid and Noor Zakiah Zainuddin
This episode is about youths taking the initiative to move beyond their comfort zones to do something for the community and along the way, discover about themselves. Nothing is too small when it comes to paying it forward.

Pre-shoot research with Aminur Rashid

Pre-shoot research with Noor Zakiah

Epsiode 4 (Teachers); Ira Wati Sukaimi and Shaheed Salim
Teachers, Educators, Mentors, Friends, Hope. Each one of us has taken one of these mantle at least once in our lives. One who shapes enquiring minds - both in the traditional school system and operating along the road less travelled. This episode pays tribute to the tireless teachers that aspire us and the teacher we want to be.‬
Crew shot with Ira Wati Sukaimi (President's Award For Teachers 2020 recipient)

Behind-the-scene at Ira Wati's beautiful home

Thank you, Ira Wati cher! 😜

The filming process
Before the camera rolls, I brief the profile on the interview thought process. This is to ‘revise’ with the profile, anecdotes from pre-shoot research sessions. I prefer to be present on these pre-shoot research to get a sense of the profile’s character on-hand. I then craft the different scenes based on the anecdotes shared during these research sessions into an outline before submitting the outline to the scriptwriter.
Pre-shoot briefing to run the keypoints with Shaheed Salim

Pre-shoot briefing to run the keypoints with Ira Wati
This is much like how one crafts the beats in a narrative fiction/drama. The difference between a narrative fiction and a documentary; in a narrative fiction both the setup and story are the writer’s concoction whereas in a documentary the setup is one that I aka the storyteller, crafted but the actual story (the anecdotal interview/soundbites, the people you see in the documentary) is the profile’s.

Pre-shoot research with Ira Wati and her husband at MacDonalds. This was done right after a long day shoot with another Wira Kita profile. Myself and Ruby Mohd (researcher) were exhausted.
Pre-shoot research with Shaheed Salim
I’m very hands on when it comes to storytelling. In a documentary of a people profile, it’s essentially a mini-biopic - you only pick the most compelling and juiciest bits. You also have the responsibility to tell the Truth. In television you don’t have the luxury of time with frivolous information. As a director and main storyteller I need to be precise with what I want to tell in crafting the outline before the scripting itself.

Furthermore, you’ll be doing your video editor a great favour by not having to go through a mountain of mush at post-production.

Many times during the interview shoot, where the host is incapable of carrying the interview, I would be one doing the interview. I find that many hosts are not able to follow through the questions or not able to enquire concisely the keypoints being enquired. When this happens it will be frustrating because many times the interviewer does not answer the questions - and this will in turn be frustrating during the editing process. Subsequently, after the filming with the interviewer is completed, I'll get the host to sit at my seat and film the scripted questions. Thus during post it will appear that the host is the one carrying the interview. Why I'm doing this? Perhaps that will be in another blog by itself.

On the last day with Danial Bawthan after his shoot wrapped

Obligatory wefie at The Singapore Flyer.

Photobombed by Asraf Amin (host) and Ruby Mohd (researcher)

Wrap on my last day of filming for the series (episode 4)

...And a gift from Ira Wati for the production crew which she had sketched herself that morning at 4am before coming to the National Gallery for her filming. This came totally unexpected and it caught everyone by surprise! Thank you so much.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Sayang Disayang on NETFLIX, part 2

A local newspaper posed some questions recently when my film feature debut, Sayang Disayang, got streamed over at NETFLIX.

The following are the questions and my responses in full. It may get edited for space when the article is published in the newspaper.

1) How did you feel when Sayang Disayang is now on Netflix?

Each achievement that Sayang Disayang gained beginning in its world premiere in late 2013 has been a great milestone for everyone that has been involved in this film since production began in 2008. Being on Netflix is another great milestone for everyone involved. When production began, it never crossed in anyone’s mind, including mine, that it would have achieved these “slow-burner” achievements, including having the honour to be the first Malay language film as Singapore’s Official Entry to the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Sayang Disayang was conceived from the belief that there is an important story to make – an important documentation of Singapore’s place in the Nusantara.

2) What were some feedback from friends who watched it for first time?

I think Sayang Disayang is a unique film where many in Singapore has heard of but not many has actually seen it. The last wide public screening was 2 weeks during National Day of 2014. Thus, there is a word-of-mouth buzz and perhaps a genuine interest to what this buzz is all about. It has been about 7 years since Sayang Disayang was had its world premiere in late 2013 in the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival. I received many DMs on my social media from friends, film lovers and strangers who admitted Sayang Disayang is a very different film from the Malay films they watched, ie in particular with regards to the narrative structure, the subject matter and even the casting of the protagonists. But the most inspiring notes are the ones that thanked me for putting out a refreshing perspective of Malay social drama in the visual narrative. I have also received many DMs from younger generation Malay filmmakers who felt inspired from the style of filmmaking.

3) Why Sayang Disayang was special for you?

Sayang Disayang was special for me because it was actually completed from the effort of the Malay community. It was special because I think I had the genuine “Duas” from the community who had genuinely wanted a Malay-language film that speaks from the heart of the contemporary Singaporean-Malay. Konsert Ramuan was a crowd-funding event that was held in 2011 by 25 band acts and more than 100 performers from the Malay performing community with a common vision to generate awareness and funds for Sayang Disayang (it was called Ramuan Rahasia then, thus the name of the event). Although it did not generate the targeted fund, the spirit of the organisers and performers were enough to make me not give up but to complete the endeavour of making this important Singapore cinema milestone.

4) Where has it travelled to?

Alhamdulillah, Sayang Disayang has actually travelled to all continents in the world. It world premiered in the Philippines in 2013 at the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival in 2013, where it received the Best Asian Film (Jury Prize). Some notable ones are the prestigious Asia-Pacific Screen Awards (in-competion), Hawaii International Film Festival, Phnom Penh International Film Festival (opening film), Silk Road International Film Festival (China), etc. It was even screened inflight on Singapore Airlines. And of course screening to the members of the Academy Awards that organises the Oscars.

5) Why do you feel stories such as this should be on Netflix? What other works of yours do you feel worth to be on Netflix?

Just like printed literature, it is very important that film-goers are exposed to diverse voices and various storytelling structures. The human condition is complex. This complexity is a cause for celebration, not discrimination. Being an important international streaming platform, it is thus important that Netflix continues to provide diverse and bravely showcase complex narratives to its audiences.

The Singapore-Malay voice has been underestimated for so long, largely because of the commercial viability in relation to its national demographics. Thus importance and “screen time” has always veered towards the appeal of the dominant demographics. Perhaps mediacorp should consider many of the award-winning shows from Pesta Perdana for Netflix. 

6) Netflix introduced Malay interface, adding Malay content - how do you see this as giving a spark of hope for our little community of Malay filmmakers?

This is a very important milestone, not just the Malay voice but Singaporean-Malay voice. From my own experience, one of the huge reason I made my first short film from the Malay-Bawean-Singapore perspective in 2005 was because I did not see any representation of the Singaporean-Malay onscreen in both the local and international film festivals prior to that. Thus we cannot underestimate the power of representation onscreen, in this case Netflix, would do to the many aspiring Malay filmmakers in Singapore.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Sayang Disayang on NETFLIX

The journey had not been easy.

I am humbled that SAYANG DISAYANG has travelled this far. It began filming in 2009. To get this project further off the ground, the Singapore-Malay music community rallied together in a project called Konsert Ramuan (2011), a one day event consisting of 25 band acts (more than 100 performers). They came together because they believed in this little project when no one else did. I am grateful to them.

It was truly a community effort. Yet, we did not hit the target budget but the compassion and blessing from all around were enough to drive the project forward, albeit for a longer completion time frame. It felt like returning to film school, but without the film lecturers, textbooks and highly-subsidised film equipment to assist. I went back to the school of hard knocks - back to the actual on-the-ground work experience and utilising what was practical that were not taught in the classrooms.

There are many ways to tell a story. Filmmakers use structure to manipulate storytelling. Instead of fretting over what cannot be done, I fell back to the essence of cinema - the visual storytelling. I do not want this project to be a replica of those good-budgeted, guilty-pleasure narratives I have done for television. Nor replicate narrative concepts that have been done before. Storytelling is an individual expression. Furthermore, the project is an independent production anyways. I could have walked away and forget about this project but live my life regretting about not completing that everyone at Konsert Ramuan believed in. And forever regretting that post-independence, contemporary Singapore cinema is denied a Malay representation on its screens. 

SAYANG DISAYANG had its World Premiere at Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival in 2013. It received the Jury Prize for Best Asian Film. After travelling to many continents, it was the Official Singapore Entry (Best Foreign Language Film) at the 2015 Oscars.

Watch it when you have that quiet moment. The film is not something to watch when you're on the run. 


(Just for the record, the production budget for Sayang Disayang was about $10 000, not $400 000 as quoted by this article. I was ill-advised. It was all self-funded - $400 000 was the projected production for the film. There was no way I could have raised $400 000 as stated. I am sorry)

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Directing Mr Ballerino, part 2

I was contacted by a national newspaper with regards to my experiences in directing Mediacorp SURIA's first ever drama series where Ballet forms the premise. The following are the questions asked. 

Subsequently, for brevity and standard newspaper spreadsheet word limit, my responses were edited.


1) How do you feel when you were given this project to direct? About guys who do ballet?

Each project that I take up to direct has its own set of challenges. However Mr Ballerino is special because in close to 25 years directing Malay dramas for Mediacorp, this is the first time that Ballet takes centrestage in a drama series for the local Malay channel. Perceptively, ballet is a contemporary dance form that is foreign to traditional Malay culture. Even in Asia, ballet is embraced only recently during the later part of the 20th century. 

For many societies in Asia, including the Malays in Southeast Asia, there is a clear line between femininity and masculinity. Men are stereotypically seen as being aggressive, competitive, and instrumentally oriented while women are seen as being passive, cooperative, and expressive. These roles become problematic when a guy takes up ballet. In many ballet performances, one sees many ballerinas and seldom a ballerino. The idea of a male in tights and tutu does not confirm to the pervasive Asian idea of masculinity. However, the irony is that while ballet performances showcase grace and poise, it also requires aggressiveness to perform movements like the Pirouette, or a spin, and the leaps. Many who are not familiar with ballet fail to see this concept. I take up this project to also debunk these stereotypical perception of ballet that many in our community may have towards this classical art form. 

2) How different is Mr Ballerino from the other projects?

I like to take up left-field challenges and this project has given me that opportunity. Perhaps ballet is something that is not fully embraced in the Malay community. In my work, I often see myself with a responsibility to open up our own perspectives. Perhaps there are Malay youths out there, probably a young Malay male, who is curious about ballet and is facing a dilemma about taking up ballet due to the stereotypical challenges he may be facing within his community circles. Thus, Mr Ballerino is not just a frivolous concept. It is relevant to educate our community.

3) What were the challenges faced?

Except for 1 or 2 actors that have done formative contemporary dance training a (very) long time ago, none of the actors have any ballet training at all. They went through about 5 sessions of intense training by Ricky Sim, a professional ballet trainer. These are 1 introductory, 2 basic moves and 2 for finale and duet. 

For my part, I also have to do my own research and watch them during training. I have to make sure that during filming, the poise and grace during the performances are respectfully captured. We even have a ballet trainer on set during the dance sequences. The other challenge for me personally is to capture the idealism of young adults in tertiary education. The youths portrayed in Mr Ballerino exist in 2020. Their sensibilities are different from when I attended tertiary education as a young adult.

4) What is your takeaway from directing it?

I see directing Mr Ballerino as an ongoing personal effort to keep myself relevant with contemporary sensibilities. I love projects that not only entertains, but also that challenge myself and the audience. I see contemporary drama as a reflection of our times as a society. It’s about time that Mr Ballerino and ballet be showcased to mainstream Malay sensibilities.

5) What’s exciting about the drama?

Ballet, like many other danceform, showcases grace and poise. When it comes to filming, I have to keep in mind that the shots respectfully captures the form. Many of the shots are deliberately taken in wide shots. 

To capture the drama in specific movements, the dance shots are also taken on a gimbal. The ballet dance has drama and it’s very exciting that these subtle drama in ballet is respectfully captured for the untrained eye.

Update: 3) Challenges

I have forgotten to mention that perhaps the biggest challenge was doing post production during the nationally-imposed Circuit Breaker (April - June 2020). On normal, non-CB situations, the usual practice during any post-production would be the editor and myself editing together in person. Such process can achieve the spontaneity of creating effective scenes. Editing is like composing music. One needs the immediate, face-to-face communication between the editor and myself at each stage.

What happened was that after we did episode 3, the CB was imposed. The editing studio was moved to a new makeshift room, because it is against the law to work from the office. All "non-essential" services were prohibited to operate. It's basically Singapore's version of the Covid-19 "lockdown". Thus the editing process was done remotely between myself and the editor - where I worked from home and the machine was at some place not in the office. Every edits need to be communicated and written down. At the end of the revision, there will be a very long list of instructions via timecodes. on Many occasions these timecodes are overlooked. On a few occasions, some movie files were "missing" or files jumbled up, which would have been solved easily if I sit in during edit in the same room. Oh the frustration. 

Monday, July 6, 2020

A humble story about myself and my chickens.

Long long time ago, before my family moved to the flats, we used to rear chickens. I love playing with the chicks more than the chickens. Those weeks-old chicks were so adorable to chase around - to play with. However on some days, my feet was too fast for those chicks

When my family moved to the flats, I had no chance to play with the neighbourhood boys at the void deck. My cousins who lived in the same block (and their neighbours) were the closest "budak blok" friends I had. It was probably the boys at my immediate block were much much older. My parents never encouraged my siblings to mingle with the neighbourhood kids nor discouraged any casual friendships we may have had with the budak blok. Staying in what used to be the *red zone* of my estate, my parents did well to protect my siblings from mixing with the "wrong" company. Thus we never got into any serious trouble, except for the 3 cm cut I had across my forehead while playing jumping rope on the slippery common corridor right after the rain.

I went to study at a very. good. school at Bukit Timah. I hung out with the affluent kids and I made friends with many of them. Initially I was in awe of things these kids had, ie the overseas holidays, the houses they lived in (yes they were kind enough to invite me home) and the school bags they carried their fancy stationery in. They seemed loud and boastful when I first met them but later I realised these was how privileged lower-secondary wealthy kids (from that very. good. school) spoke. It was normal for them to talk like that. For many boys like myself from "humble" background, we had the tendency to be mindful of our words when we speak to any body - at least that was how my parents taught me to do. Beyond that, we were just typical, boisterous boys. 

I think my classmates learnt a lot from one another. I aspired to study hard and break away from my blue-collar cycle. To the privileged classmates that I made close friends with, it was the first time that many had stepped into a 3-room HDB flat. I think it was also the first time that a handful had actually made friends with a Malay person who was not their father's personal driver or their mother's housekeeper. So we learned a lot from each other from that very. good. school.

I got to where I am today by not using my past as an excuse to get out of that circumstances to be in a position with certain privilege. I am still staying at the 3-room flat that my family stayed in when they moved into the newly-built estate. I embrace my background, my neighbourhood and many of the first-generation families who are still staying in my neighbourhood. I remembered I actually felt safe coming home any time of the day - because the "kids" in the neighbourhood were good to me, although I chose not to be in their company. I got used to the way these kids express themselves. People are people. And they care enough to know that I had chosen to take a different path from them. We are still friends.

Coming home to this part of Singapore always reminded me to get back down to earth, however well-connected I may be with the establishment.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The challenges on making Malay-centric, Singapore films

I was approached by a cohort of students who will be taking 'A' Levels in 2020 with regards to my experience making Singapore films in Malay. 

The questions and my responses are reproduced below.

1. Having made the first local Malay feature film (Sayang Disayang) since independence, we understand that the local Malay film industry is still a fledgling one. Hence, we would love to hear your insights about the importance of building up a Malay film industry in the predominantly Chinese/English local film industry.

I made my first short film LOST SOLE, in 2005. Prior to that there was personal turmoil every time I attended film festivals that were organised locally. There was this frustration of not being able to see the Singapore-Malay voice being represented onscreen at these regular screenings. Perhaps the short film, DATURA (1999), by the late Abdul Nizam Khan, was the rare film that came closest to having a Singapore-Malay representation on screen. There was a chasm between the last Malay film produced during post-independence Singapore. In the 10 years since I graduated from film school in 1996, there was a dearth in Malay-centric films made by Singaporeans. Upon graduation I dived straight into television, producing and eventually directing television programmes of diverse genres. Despite my tv commitments, I still found time to reconnect with local cinema production by attending film festivals here. 

Cinema is all about communal connection. While I could relate to the humanity in the narratives, I could not empathise with the racial-representations onscreen then. Television gives me access to practice diverse narrative techniques. However, local television does not allow me to fully articulate my thoughts about my community, because of respective broadcasting restrictions. Deep down I knew that if I did not start, no one else was going to do it - thus the impetus to make LOST SOLE. LOST SOLE was also an exercise to express the Baweanese roots of my Malay heritage. In 2005 (and to an extent up to now) regulations restrict any authentic expression of dialects on local television, other than the national languages consisting of Chinese Malay, Indian and English. Occasionally I was also inspired by a couple of young Singapore-Chinese filmmakers who reconnected with their dialects via their films then. I was pleasantly surprised that LOST SOLE received positive, critical responses from the international film festivals. 

Nevertheless, I had to do extra work of explaining to the international audience that the culture they were watching onscreen is unique to the Singapore experience and Singapore-Malay identity is different from those in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Since LOST SOLE, I have deliberately made Singapore films anchored in the Malay point-of-view, because this aspect of the Singapore story is the one that I’m most familiar with and are able to tell respectfully. It’s also to keep the Singapore-Malay representation consistent. Furthermore, it's empowering when you embrace your unique identity and are able to tell about it.

2. In your opinion, do you think that the overshadowing of local Malay films by foreign films is a cause of the lack of a Malay film industry in Singapore? Could you share with us about how you have tried to overcome this and whether you face any challenges in doing so?

Before we go into the impact of international films (ie big-budget Hollywood, Hindi or Korean blockbusters, or even films from Malaysia or Indonesia) we need to look at how local audiences are consuming our own local films by Singapore filmmakers. The Singapore-Chinese holds the largest demography in Singapore. Secondly, as much as it is 2020, much of the mainstream media (ie national paper, television, etc) is produced largely by Singapore-Chinese content producers. Many are not familiar with the movers and shakers in the non-Chinese community. When you are not familiar with the ground, you avoid risks. The large film producers in Singapore are still profit-based. The demand and appeal of the films are still based on the demography of the audience. Malay and Indian-centric Singapore films are perceived to have difficulty to sell locally. These are real challengers that are faced by Singaporeans who want to make Malay or Indian-centric Singapore films.

I still find many instances (that I find problematic) with being labelled as a “Malay” filmmaker when I’m being featured in a national/mainstream outlet. A Singapore-Chinese artist would be identified simply as “Singapore” artist/musician/filmmaker. This mindset needs to change immediately. Outlets for artists in Singapore are already limited and we do not need this labelling at the headlines to further segregate ourselves as Singaporeans. Let the audience decide what they want to consume. We do not need the content editors to define race and ethnicity while calling ourselves “one Singapore”. This practise is not healthy for Singapore in the long-run. Furthermore, as long as you are Singaporeans regardless of Chinese, Malay and Indian, we have the same 21st century sensibilities, post-baby boomers.

Another aspect of filmmaking that many people are not aware of is that the process from writing a script to the first day of shooting takes about 2-4 years – minimum. Many filmmakers became disheartened by the constant rejections and subsequently leave the industry. Filmmaking is a constant personal battle. If you are resilient and persistent, your film will get made eventually. This is one of the biggest challenges as filmmakers. Not many Singaporeans want to invest 2-4 years of their lives just knocking on doors. We are conditioned as a society to be economically pragmatic.

3. From our primary research, we found out that despite growing international recognition, locals remain less supportive of local films due to “bad acting”, “low budget”, “low quality” and “less interesting content” compared to foreign films. What are your thoughts on this and how ground-up initiatives could possibly help you change this public mindset and improve audience demand?

The appreciation for Singapore films (or any other artistic practices and the respective artists) needs to begin at national school curriculums. Educators need to explore and challenge themselves with film/arts literacy and perhaps share this exploration with their students. Singapore is not lacking in quality and nuanced artists, storytellers and filmmakers. It can also start at community grassroots level. This nurturing needs to be consistent. 

Importantly, when discussing Singapore films, one cannot take films by Marvel Studios or ones starring Dwayne Johnson as yardsticks. Filmmaking is an expression of humanity and humanity is complex. There is no one way to present humanity. One does not compare Beethoven with Abigail Sin and Henri Matisse with Georgette Chen. These artists are distinct in their backgrounds and processes. The "Singapore chilli crab" - it’s only when Singaporeans claim its Chilli Crab is the best, that tourists will be drawn to the dish. It’s only when Singaporeans have pride in their heritage that non-locals will be curious to savour our locally-produced goods.

On the impression to “bad acting”, I observe many Singapore actors cannot differentiate between television acting and acting for film. Many of them has their grounding in television – understandably because television in Singapore is a major medium for dramas and one where many actors find regular work. It's also not helpful that the young generation of actors looks up to the veterans who themselves are craddled in the "technical" television acting process. The cycle continues. One cannot just translate the acting nuances for television into films. When you literally translate such acting processes, bad acting is inevitable.

4. Do you feel that there is currently enough/sustainable talent in the local film industry (both shorts and feature films), including from supporting roles such as acting, sound, editing, cinematography etc.? What do you think can be improved to expand the talent pool for local films, and/or Malay films in particular?

Singapore has a large pool of qualified artists and film technicians. What is probably lacking is the budget and recognition (see point 2) of Singapore artists. I was the pioneer batch of graduates from the Film, Sound and Video Department of Film and Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. In the almost 28 years since the inception of FSV, the department has produced alumni that have won prestigious international recognition. NTU has a BA programme in film and media. The Institute of Technical Education has had cohorts of students trained in film technical support (ie grips, gaffers, sound recordists, digital wranglers etc) for many years already. We have local arts institutions, like NAFA and LASELLE that trained many actors you see on screen and on stage. Many that are trained overseas worked in major films, ie The Dark Knight, Fifth Element and Crazy Rich Asians, and the London staging of Madame Butterfly. We have a sound engineer who was Grammy-nominated. We have animators who were in the secondary teams in Oscar-nominated animated films. Singapore theatre groups are constantly showcasing actors’ performances.

A couple of Singapore-Malay actors are superstars in Malaysia. My own Malay-centric Singapore films have been screened on the international film circuit. I personally know several Singaporean-Malays who are running the top television networks in Malaysia. In the Hollywood-produced film Crazy Rich Asians, there was a deliberate effort by IMDA to include Singaporean cast members and technical filming crew as part of the deal for the film to be made in Singapore. This is a productive effort to have Singapore artists and crew to be involved on international platforms. However it is not enough for Singaporeans to be a crew on international film productions, they need aspire to be on the top-of-line creatives of these international films.

5. Are there any official/unofficial networks or platforms to scout for talent in different areas? Do you face any challenges looking for the “right people” to work with? 

There are several casting groups on Facebook. These are mostly initiated by the actors themselves. There are also several groups that cater to the allocation of technical crew. However, with regards to casting, many film producers look for actors who have marquee value in order to sell the films. These marquee actors are those names that you see headlining a film. Screenwriters and directors like myself usually have in mind a particular person to play a certain character while writing the script. This choice is the result of many years of networking and personal friendships inculcated from previous collaborations on sets. Of course, film producers who have bigger budgets may request for a relatively famous cast. That always comes with higher fees.

6. The short film industry in Singapore has been relatively successful and budding filmmakers get to hone their skills and get a head start in their feature film careers. While there are many shorts produced each year with several winning international accolades, do you think there is a huge gap between the transition from short films to feature films, and whether any areas can be improved to smoothen this transition for aspiring filmmakers? (e.g. funding, finding manpower, skill/knowledge)

From personal experience, the work processes between short films and feature films are distinctive. The transition to feature film was a humbling process. While many young filmmakers aspire to make the passion feature film, many have this misconception that a feature film is just an extension of a short film. 

Short film and feature film are as distinct as making scones and cheesecakes. One may think that with a handful of good shorts, one can immediately transition to make a feature. A feature film requires a higher level of maturity in writing and perspective. The process should not be rushed. The majority of filmmakers in the rest of the world do their best work when they are in their fifties and onwards. 

When asked what makes a good film, Alfred Hitchcock said, “Story, story, story”. Many Singapore filmmakers make the mistake of rushing into a feature with a half-baked story.

7. What are your thoughts on promoting local Malay films to tourists as a means to raise the awareness and visibility of local films overseas for better market expansion to eg. Malaysia? 

This is certainly a good idea. However, I have to caution that filmmaking, regardless of the medium of language, is not about selling to tourists first. Shakespeare wrote “King Lear”, “Macbeth” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” while quarantined when London was in lockdown during the plague and he certainly didn’t intent to write his plays to sell to tourists, nor did Beethoven when he wrote Fur Elise. As mentioned in point 3, tourists only flock to a local product when the locals themselves have embraced that product. Pretty films without soul do not sell. To reiterate, Singaporeans need to educate one another that we make stories primarily to embrace ourselves first and then throw it out there for the world audience to connect in the name of humanity. A good story is a good story and will appeal and ultimately sell to anywhere in the world regardless of language.

8. Are there any other areas that ground-up initiatives could potentially work on to improve the prospects of local Malay films succeeding locally and/or overseas? (e.g. film education/literacy, publicity/promotions, gathering public feedback/ideas about film content, platforms for showcasing your works)

Cinema is a communal experience where audiences take comfort in the shared humanity. Parents and national schools also need to inculcate value in creative storytelling right from the start.

In summary,
1. Education on film literacy.
2. Mainstream media to cease labelling filmmakers (and artists) based on ethnicity.
3. Focus on creative storytelling from a young age, and constant emphasis on the importance of the Story in narrative films. Technology is secondary and a bonus.
4. Film schools to include modules on film marketing as an add-on to compulsory film modules.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Filmmaking - are you in or out?

I’m a filmmaker. 

I’ve seen A LOT of films that are controversial and divisive. It is part of my storytelling process to consume diverse opinions and perspectives as much as possible. This is how I grow as a filmmaker. 

I’ve done my fair share of “divisive” little films myself in the eyes of my community.

I’m also friends with people who have very strong opinions. There are others who are introverted. These relationships nourish my view as a storyteller. They frame my film narratives.

You cannot call yourself an artist if you only reside in your shell and refuse to challenge yourself to have effective communication with people that does not conform to your world view.

I thrive as a filmmaker simply because my capacity as one gives me access to meet with people of different circumstances. You may not be comfortable with regards to my thought process and casting or aesthetics. If you do not wish to challenge yourself to diverse point-of-views, the problem is you. 

Public discourse is unlike recess time at primary school, where you only choose to be with the more popular cliques, leaving the “odd ones” by the benches. And from my experience sitting on those benches, the ones with cliques end up with boring friends in life.

Most artists come with their own story and it’s colourful. That is why it makes on-set collaboration film-gasmic. If you are afraid to confront yourself with challenges and diversity, you’ll lose out.

In the process of telling a story, I rediscover myself and perhaps yours too. 

Are you in or out?

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Sama sama in COVID-19

In the Malay language, the word SAMA-SAMA goes beyond just being “together”. When I was a child, I remember when my siblings fought over something trivial (like young siblings do) one of my parents in an attempt to break the kiddy fights, would just gently advise my older siblings to give in. Turning to me (the youngest and often the trouble maker) to just main sama-sama or share kindly.

During mealtimes at family gatherings, the dulang or a round tray filled with traditional malay meals (nasi ambeng and nasi rawon were something that you eat only at very. special. Malay family gatherings back then - not something you eat at your whim from the hawker centre) will be served to be shared with 5-6 cousins. Nah, kongsi makan sama-sama, or here, take this and share it well. Growing up, the term Sama-sama were ingrained into part of our discipline.

At the Madrasah, my religious teachers would teach us, with reference to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to look out for one another, especially the unfortunate and vulnerable among us, so that the we grow up as thoughtful and useful citizens for the community, because even a simple, yet thoughtful deed goes a long way to build sama-sama masyarakat makmur or a blessed and prosperous community.

It’s about a week left to the blessed month of Ramadan. The covid19 situation looks like a long way from cooling down. It brings out both the worst in people and kindness from many unexpected quarters. This is humanity’s coping mechanism. They are dreadful, inspiring, heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. Everyone has their own reasons to do what they do to cope during these tough times. Regardless, instead of being quick to vilify, let’s listen to their stories. Even the Prophet ﷺ made mistakes.

Let’s be kind. Let’s hear one another out, not call one another out. Learn from mistakes and move on, not dwell on. Sama-sama we can inspire one another.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Directing Mr Ballerino

I’m reminded again what directing is all about. Every production is unique. You never have the perfect family. The producer brings them together, but it’s your responsibility to ensure they see eye to eye when the camera rolls. Even after close to 25 years, it still gets overwhelming, because your family is different all the time. Each has their respective expertise and skills. The fun part of running the symphony is calibrating these respective expertise to a common vision. Not just a common vision, but my vision - that linear vision that identifies my work from the rest of the pack (regardless of the genre), one that followers of my humble work will know it’s from me.

Orchestrating a film set is not just about taking sexy shots. It’s about identifying a cast strength and make their respective performances work For them in a scene. It’s about projecting the strength of the camera for you to your own unique style. Many times a scene doesn’t require fancy execution even though the gadgets are there. I like my shots motivated and uncluttered. There are too many things happening in a scene there’s no need to bastardize it with unnecessary fancy shots. Maintaining consistency in all aspects or performance, visual style including the art and makeup/style departments. For drama series, you receive diverse screenplays and scripts. It is important to fuse these eclectic narrative styles to your own, consistent style. The production assistants and runners tie all the departments together.

So, directing is not just about the sexy shots. It’s about getting the conceptual essence of the drama series and rallying everyone in the production that they have a stake in it - just like the sound recordist insists to have ideal sound environments to record his audio, because NO audio sweeteners can save a bad sound. Their names will be on the end credits after all.

Thus with all these responsible technicians onset, the director cannot feel safe behind these professionals. He gotta step up. They are not the reason for his shortcomings.