Sunday, May 15, 2022

Documenting

Pandan/Teban Gardens (Singapore) neighbourhood kids, circa 2012

Besides dramatic films, my other passion is making documentaries. A documentary is another form of visual narrative but because you’re filming real people in their natural, social environment - normal people who largely have no sense of the camera language, things can/will take a tangent in location.

As much as you’ve done in-depth research prior filming to give bullet points in your script, many times you are faced with extemporaneous, offhand or impromptu situations on location. These require you to think on your feet to deliberate. I think this is where one’s maturity as a storyteller may shine. Sometimes you need to make unpopular creative decisions because you’re closer to the ground. You’re more in tune to the beat as director. Your subsequent decision to follow-up new details or go a little off-tangent may be unpopular on set or with the powers that be.

However, we ultimately need to be looking at the bigger picture - the content of the documentary. The message it is trying to convey. It’s unlike many heavy-handed, lite magazine programme/segment where much is perfect, pretty and on-point - but somewhat hollow. I’ve been there. Perhaps many avoid this process because of the hassle, but I thrive on this challenge as storyteller. The process also takes time (!!) to put together. This nature of documentary pushes your limit as a storyteller - to be that safe doco filmmaker or one that pursues the subject and questions your audience.

On that note, this picture popped up on my memory feed. It was taken 10 years ago while shooting a documentary at Pandan and Teban Gardens (Jurong, Singapore). These neighbourhood kids came out of nowhere and “shot” at us playfully 😄 I decided to film them in their element. Very impromptu indeed.

Documenting kids (as opposed to just filming) - capturing their innocence is up there among filming a socially-troubled subject or one on the brink of death, in my humble opinion.

If you happened to be one of these boys (or know them), please holler! You’ve certainly added colour to the documentary. I think this picture very much summed up the vibes of Pandan and Teban Gardens then.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Notes from the editing room.

The two people I consider my left and right arms in the directing process will be the director of photography and the post-production editor. Their effective collaboration ensures my ideas come through. While the “director” gets most of the spotlight (unfortunately, imho), often the video editor gets the least credit next to the DOP.

The DOP translates my mise-en-scene. The editor layers the images based on the narrative. (There are however the ‘glorified’ cameramen and indifferent button pushers but that’s for another post).

You develop many genuine relationships in the production process. I have my firm directions. I also give the DOP and video editor some breathing space. No one is more creative than another. We have our own skills and tastes. As much as they look up to me for guidance, there are moments when I hit the wall and they are there to support me with my vision. This is where you build relationships - your creative social capital.

I have worked with editors who overlooked the mise-en-scene and devalue actor’s performance. I have also worked with ones that chose the ego over collaboration. I appreciate the handful gems that truly “see” the shots and work around with these images that, when put together, create deeper layers. Editing is laborious. It is also an intimate process.

On that note, one of the best hands in the industry will not be spinning his magic behind the editing console together with me anymore - at least locally. One that had a hand in creating some of my best work the last few years. I am honoured that his final work in Singapore is with my upcoming film project.

Thank you Perri for your magic. Can’t wait to present this soon. 🤜🏽🤛🏽

Perri and I on his last day of editing the film, Pulang Balik. The project also marked his last project in Singapore.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Good Intentions

I grew up surrounded by enthralling stories, but I remember sitting at many film events in Singapore and not seeing a single film being about my people, my community, its achievements, and its struggles. I remember seeing many great films of international acclaim, yet none of them “spoke” my language as a Singaporean-Malay. The Singaporean-Malay, in the land of their ancient ancestors, seemed like an entity that no one knew about. I felt disconnected from the world that was constructed on the screen. The films spoke to the dominant demographic in attendance – the Singaporean-Chinese. Amidst the films from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China there were already a handful of films that were made by local Singaporean-Chinese. Thus there were already some representations of locals of Singapore-Chinese heritage. In a country where the Singaporean-Chinese make up 75% of the population, the Singaporean-Malay 15% and the Singaporean-Indian 7%, this viewing demographics and the dominance of Chinese films is to be expected.

There were films from Malaysia and Indonesia in Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia respectively. However none of the gritty, insular stories about the kampung (rural, village) heartlander or those adapting in the peripherals of big cities, that regularly feature in films from Malaysia and Indonesia at film festivals, matter much to me.

This was sometime in the late 90s and the early 2000s. The last films from Singapore made in the Malay language ended in the late 60s when Singapore separated from the Federation of Malaya. With independence, the local lingua franca changed from Malay to English. Cinema habits changed too as the demand was largely from Hollywood and Bollywood. Occasionally there were films from Hong Kong.

Sitting in the cinema then, something triggered at the back of my head and it was not about the foreign films that I was watching. It was something about the relevance of my voice, and where this voice situates itself in Singaporean contemporary cinema. It was also about how I would tell the world audience about Singapore and Singaporeans. A city state cannot proudly authentically claim itself to be “multicultural”, when its media is only representing one ethnic facet of its reality. Simply showcasing all the four official languages and their respective ethnicities in one programme is not reflective of “multiculturism”. Having that token local Malay in one programme in a predominantly Chinese programming is not representation. Put bluntly, it is insulting window dressing.

In 2005, I wrote, produced and directed my first indie film, LOST SOLE. Other than being Singapore’s first film in the Malay language since independence, I pushed further by writing some of the dialogues in the Baweanese language. This was my way of giving tribute to my Baweanese heritage and my grandparents who hailed from the Bawean Island in Java, Indonesia. It was also my way of pointing a finger to the four nationally-sanctioned official languages in state-run media.

A still from LOST SOLE (2006)
LOST SOLE is about an elderly Malay man who lost his slippers at the mosque after the Friday congregational noon prayers. More importantly, it was a film dedicated to my late father who walked barefoot for two kilometers home after losing his slippers one Friday at the mosque. LOST SOLE travelled to more than 30 film festivals. It was subsequently showcased at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During these festivals, I had to explain to the large international audiences who were not aware of the Singaporean-Malay existence because they were only familiar with the Malays in Malaysia and the Bahasa spoken in Indonesia from these countries’ respective films. I was happy that the Singapore-Malay was being seen internationally – finally!

After LOST SOLE, I made two other indie short films A LA FOLIE (2008) and AMEEN (2010). These films are centered on the Singaporean-Malay and looked at ironies and conflicts between “Malayness” and Islamic spirituality. Subsequently I was beyond excited to do my first feature, SAYANG DISAYANG (2013) that I wrote, produced and directed. I felt that after the success of the three short films in world cinema – and presenting a more nuanced multicultural Singapore, SAYANG DISAYANG would have access to state funding. However, that was not to be the case. Eventually the film was made independently after it failed to receive state funding after two long years of flip-flopping between the agencies. SAYANG DISAYANG was about a caregiver who is desperate to re-create the Sambal Goreng recipe made by the deceased wife of her lonely and testy wheelchair-bound Singaporean employer, in efforts to break down the emotional barriers between them. SAYANG DISAYANG was awarded Best Asian Film (Jury’s Prize) at the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival and subsequently and rather ironically became Singapore’s official entry in the 2015 Oscars (Foreign Language Film).

From these experiences, I take it upon myself to ensure that Singaporean-Malay voices are heard. It seems, if I don’t do it nobody else will – or somebody else may try to and do it disrespectfully. These days whenever I was commissioned by state agencies to do public video campaigns, I deliberately incorporate Malay story elements into these videos.

Films are incredibly important historical documentation for future generations of Singaporeans. The respective communities need to be assured that their voices matter even when commercial cinema dictates otherwise. Despite the challenges of showcasing minority voices, they can be inspired by filmmakers telling more stories that matter in the community. Telling stories that “speak” to communities unite, empower and inspire them. That has become my life-calling as a story-teller.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Imposter Syndrome

I struggle with the imposter syndrome considerably. But the journey I’ve walked on and the situations that I’ve been so privileged to be part of helped buffer this condition tremendously.

I was fortunate to have parents who instilled good values upon my siblings and I growing up. It wasn’t ideal. They tried their best with the best they had raising kids in Jurong. Life was satisfactory.

However, there were those that didn’t have the privilege of ideal, nuclear families. They sought family at the void decks, common corridors or the neighbourhood playground. Many of these kids were my neighbours. Their construct of family was different from mine. Sometimes they struggled with imposter syndrome by battling within “family” and between themselves.

Perhaps growing up in such neighbourhood and despite the apparent stability at home, I constantly battled with myself if I was good enough. Validation means constantly being among the top 10 students in the neighbourhood primary school. Being the first in the family to study at an elite all-boys secondary school (solely via exceptional PSLE results) and the first to enter junior college. But placed among exceptional students, I was still battling with imposter syndrome.

Then, National Service came knocking. This mamat was enlisted into the most elite army unit.

The significance of the uniform may be different to different people. Power to you. For me, the beret was the ultimate alibi to battle the imposter syndrome. For the record, I wasn’t always in tune with the regimental needs of NS. But being among the elite and legends made me realise what I could become and where I could be when I give myself 101%.

Am I good enough? Am I really that kilat?

A friend once said, “Know that the lifespan of a commando is not the first day of BMT and the last day you stepped down as a reservist. Rather a commando’s lifespan is a continuity even to this very moment.”

Today on this joyful occasion as we celebrate the 52th anniversary of the Commando Formation, I want to give a shoutout to the band of brothers that helped me battle the devil that is the imposter syndrome.


Meanwhile here's a vlog I did during the formation's golden jubilee in 2019. It was the last major gathering we had before the pandemic lockdown.


Monday, November 22, 2021

Community engagement

My task is to tell a good story, and tell that story effectively regardless of the circumstances. I have come across many situations where the means to tell the story and its circumstances have not been ideal ie insufficient funding (#1 hindrance), perceived unprofitability due to insufficient demographic support, etc. However these are stories that needed to be told - there is an urgency of the story matter that it is imperative, conversations (sometimes difficult) be raised.

The other challenge is putting together a decent piece of video consisting of senior, elderly folks who have no prior training to acting nor being in front of the video camera. The closest to “acting” they have is noting how well that certain favourite actor can cry on cue or commenting how well the actor can implode with ferocity on soap television.

Nevertheless it has been a privilege to be able to put this video together. A privilege because the process checks on the complacency that I may somewhat have while working with professional actors. It checks on my patience, my professionalism and importantly my discipline as a director. Beyond the task to make everyone “look good”, I need a nudge to check myself why I have eagerly taken up this project in the first place. Having the privilege to work regularly with professional folks who are at the top of their game on a set, then working with non-actors takes me back to when I first started doing what I’m doing. The adrenaline of being this unknown jumping head on into the unknown - colliding, to just wing it and pray that I could turn the challenge into something worth watching is fantastic!

Sometimes it’s not all about the awards or film festivals in filmmaking. You have something to say (it could perhaps be risky), you have the most basic filmmaking gear, and you just shoot it! I encourage other filmmakers to be involved in community projects when you can. The remuneration is little (if any) but the joy is priceless. This project is my little way of getting in touch with the community. I try to get involved in such projects annually.

It was lovely working with the non-trained senior participants who have not only brought me back to that process, but also redefined what it means to be sincere, spontaneous and forgiving when ‘performing’ on set. Also thank you National Arts Council Singapore and Lions Befrienders for being so supportive. A shout out to Darren Guo Euginia Tan for having me on board.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Fifty one.

“Weak eyes are fondest of glittering objects.” [Thomas Carlyle]

In a journey that spans almost half a century, I’ve learnt that to level up, you got to include people who are motivated, hungry and importantly, willing to put in the work in your circle. But not everyone can walk the talk.

You’ll have sleepless nights, lose some friends - people you really cared for and people you thought cared at what you were trying to achieve. In solitude you’ll find strength.

If you’re always having to be the bigger person, maybe don’t be around so many little people. Never seek revenge, rotten fruit will fall by itself. Somebody is mad at you right now because you picked peace over drama and distance over disrespect.

Until it’s my turn, I will clap for others. It’s that simple.





Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Dear artiste,

Hello ‘artis’, I’m not interested and dgaf with your nonsense tbh. Rather unprofessional I should say.

Kau ingat ko punya  🎶🎶 terror.

I sometimes question myself why I work on certain projects when clearly I don’t need them to elevate my portfolio, yet I did. And did them with my full commitment every time.

It’s complicated - but consider these ‘goodwill’ committed based on certain longstanding relationships. And you are certainly not one. 

Consider yourself lucky to piggyback that one person. 

When you’re long enough in this tiny industry, you will realise that you need one another, no matter which side of the bed you woke up that day.

Fathers and sons.

In the chat group, I watched as the brothers discussed, challenged and fretted why their sons are not enlisted into the same Commando unit as their fathers ie the bros… Amused.

I was enlisted into the 1st Commando Battalion. I am a Mat

My family had no connections. My elder brothers were both storemen during National Service. 

Some of these brothers approached their MPs and some ‘pulled strings’ to ensure a place for their sons. Some questioned the system when they failed. 

I’m not sure how I got into this elite unit - although you may waste time to speculate all you want. I was enlisted during in the late 80s when Malay-Singaporean were still being questioned of their loyalty if enlisted in the special units. There have been progress in the intake, ie 1 or 2 Malay boys in ratio of the hundreds of Chinese per intake - but that is for another discussion.

No connections.

Could be a glitch in the matrix 😆

Upon reflection, I love the experience. I am glad to be meeting legends. I made lifelong brothers. Perhaps I was not as kilat during NS as many of the solid brothers there, but I know where I stood to be exceptional. I am still striving to improve myself. And these guys are my constant inspiration to strive for the best at what life throws at me.

Moral of the story - let the system do its work, the rest is up to us how to leverage from it. I don’t enjoy the constant spotlight but through my work enjoy telling the kids success is not black & white.

Ok enough of my sentimentality. My teh masala is staring me in this cool weather.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A personal Pogue

Lots of history and heritage on this one.


Just collected this serviced vintage piece from the horologist. This is the Seiko 6139 Chrono, or better known as the “Pogue” after the NASA astronaut, Colonel William R. Pogue, who wore a similar watch during a NASA Skylab mission in 1973. In testing, Pogue did not have access to a standard-issue Omega Speedmaster as these weren’t supplied to astronauts until nearer launch. As an alternative, he bought a Seiko 6139 – the brand’s first automatic chronograph. Pogue liked it so much that in November 1973, when his time came to blast off for Skylab, he packed his new Speedmaster but also took his beloved Seiko without seeking NASA approval. The 6139 thus became the first automatic chronograph in space.

Importantly, it belonged to my late dad. It has been sitting in the cabinet for the longest time. I haven’t been paying much attention to it until last week. The last time I properly looked at it was perhaps in 2004 when he passed on. He gifted many things to his children and I got this one. I wasn’t into heirlooms much so kept it safely and out of my sight. Last week while spring cleaning I took out the watch and Googled it. If you are into vintage watches you’ll probably know the value of this time piece - it’s place in evolution of time pieces. Hearsay when it first came out, the “Pepsi bezel” was so popular that Rolex adapted it on it’s watches. Bad move. It was a “looks like Seiko” on the streets and Rolex was not having any of it, thus removing the “Pepsi bezel” from its designs altogether.

Cool story.

Anyways back to this watch - I’m glad I rediscovered it after all these years. It may not be a Rolex or AP but hey, value is subjective. This vintage Seiko belonged to my late dad, I got it to work again and take his memory with me. Due to the watch being too old, many service centers refused the watch (even its official service center). I found this place Bonfield Pte Ltd that was willing to take it in. Thanks to the funny craftsman Mr Eric Ong.

Moral of the story is never overlook those “old things” you found at the back of the cabinet. Maybe I’ll make a story about this on one of my future films.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Read! Fest 2021


I will be speaking at the upcoming Read! Fest 2021 (25 June - 18 July 2021).
Date: 4 July 2021, Sunday
Time: 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM


“Sanif Olek akan berkongsi bagaimana di Asia Tenggara, pengusaha perfileman berusaha memperolehi semula suara mereka dalam filem.”

Synopsis
“Gambaran terawal tentang orang Asia di dalam filem telah dirakam semasa era kolonial. Berdasarkan rekod arkib, orang Asia muncul dalam visual bergerak sejak 1896 di dalam sebuah dokumentari Amerika. Di Hollywood, orang Asia mula kelihatan di skrin pawagam pada 1914. Namun, untuk sekian lama, mereka dipaparkan menurut persepsi etnosentrik penduduk Asia Tenggara dan bukannya berdasarkan budaya, adat resam dan perilaku mereka yang realistik dan autentik. Dalam sesi ini, Sanif Olek akan berkongsi bagaimana di Asia Tenggara, pengusaha perfileman berusaha memperolehi semula suara mereka dan perwakilan dalam filem.”

This programme is inspired by “Mitos Peribumi Malas”, a featured title of Read! Fest 2021.

Basically, I’ll be speaking about how Asian filmmakers these days (aka someone like moi) are getting woke, lah. We are reclaiming our voices and identities into our films - deconstructing the film representions of Malay/Asians by the Ang Mohs.

About Read! Fest 2021
Read! Fest 2021 invites you on a forward-looking journey of self-discovery. With the theme of Reboot, take a moment to re-examine and refresh your lenses on day-to-day aspects that shape our lives.

Anchored by 12 key books and topics, Read! Fest will host over 60 programmes – from talks by world-renowned authors to workshops and experiences – each curated to immerse you in a world of thoughtful ideas for our time.

From myths and minimalism to work and womanhood, stretch out to explore new worlds and perspectives. Where will you find yourself?

To book your free seats and more details about Read! Fest 2021, kindly check this link.

By the way I was asked to speak in Malay - we shall see how that goes.