For Objectifs’ 15th Anniversary Publication

I was invited to write a short piece about an image I made and how it reflects my practice for a book Objectifs Centre for Photography & Film was putting together to commemorate her 15th anniversary in 2018. I wrote about the image where Ho Juan Thai looks to Singapore from Johor Baru, a still from To Singapore, with Love.

When I was a teen, we kayaked around Singapore in a 3-day 2-night expedition as a participant of Outward Bound School. Two to a kayak, it was my first time seeing Singapore as an island, with some parts, like the ports, busier than other parts. I remember being shocked at how boring our shoreline looked. From the outside, it was not the uber metropolis it saw itself at all.

Later, I knew that Singapore, as a mercantile hub, had a gravitational pull for small (non-Singaporean) towns surrounding her. A friend who went to Foon Yew High School in Stulang Laut, Johor Bahru, said the three chimneys of Senoko Power Station loomed large in her schoolscape since her school was just across the Straits of Johor. I tried to imagine what it was like to go to school in Malaysia and see Singapore just across. In 2010, inspired the canoe expedition, I decided to make a series of photos of Singapore, as seen from the surrounding towns in Malaysia and Indonesia. I wanted to reconcile what the inhabitants of these towns felt about Singapore, with what they saw which was a mostly uninhabited shoreline.

Later, I stumbled upon first-person accounts of political exiles in the book “Escape from the Lion’s Paw”. In the interviews, the exiles talked about going to Johor Bahru to “see” Singapore. When I met Ho Juan Thai, one of the interviewees, he took me to the sandy beach in front of Foon Yew High School to show me where to get the best view. My film “To Singapore, with Love”, grew out of some interviews featured in the book. The film was eventually banned in Singapore for undermining “national security”.

Making films is an excuse to understand how others see by putting ourselves in their shoes, to see what they see. Whether it is from the perspective of a school girl circumnavigating her country, a Malaysian Chinese student or a political exile who fled Singapore more than 40 years ago, the same view, engenders different currents. As an artist, I try to bring these currents to the fore, to show that we are more than what we make ourselves out to be, to fight complacency.

It is a privilege to be able to do this.

Contemporary Mediums Resurrecting Ancient Shadows

I attended the 2004 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a film festival celebrating the silent films and us Fellows had to each produce an essay about it. I wrote about silent film accompaniment. With deep appreciation to David Robinson who shepherded this piece into being. This piece was published in 2005 as a collection of essays by the Fellows in that programme

I was chatting an archivist I met from the Hong Kong Film Archive at the Giornate and I asked him who accompanied the Silents they periodically screen in that part of the world. He said, “In Hong Kong, we only have one silent film pianist, and he plays the same tunes for every film. It’s a bit boring but he’s our only one. That statement said as much about the isolation of silent film accompanists, as about the need for good of silent film accompanists who can shape our viewing experience and they indirectly help preserve and save these films. Perhaps that lone ranger musician would be glad to know of an annual gathering of kindred spirits at the Giornate every year.

The Giornate in 2004 brought about half of the known silent film musicians together. They had a “same time next year” pleasure at seeing each other, I found them together at the café beside the Zancanaro imbibing good spirits both before and after each performance. On the afternoon I was there with them, I eavesdropped upon a discussion between two musicians who were talking about a performance where they would be playing together. One was plumbing the other who had seen the film before for information about the film. The exchange went something like this

“Is it a happy or sad film?”
“It’s a love story”
“Does it have a happy ending?”
“I have the lovers’ theme written out, take a look”
“Nice melody”

The most salient points established (happy film about love, with love tune established), they left to play a duet. At least these musicians have some information about the film. Often, the musician plays cold, knowing less than the audience. He has to come up with a love theme on the spot and must modulate and expand the themes for the duration of the film. He must summon up his musical vocabulary to tap into the audiences’ collective musical memory. Like a simultaneous interpreter, this requires sensitivity to the curves of the storyline, a sizeable musical repertoire and a good sense of when to apply it for maximum benefit of the film. He is processing four strains of information in real time.

They had come from as far as Germany, Chicago, even New Zealand, with backgrounds equally diverse. One started out as an actor, another is a film historian, and another a filmmaker. If there was only one strand that drew them together, I sensed a deep appreciation of the Silents and their roles as contemporary mediums that resurrect forgotten masterpieces. As Gunter Buchwald said of his role “ We influence you how to see”. Using a spiritual metaphor is appropriate. More than once did I see the pianist in the pit making a sign of the cross before laying his hands on the key board, just before flicker started as if to say, “Please help me use all my gifts to help them appreciate this masterpiece”. They take their roles seriously.

What I had always found surprising in my research on silent film music practices was
that Silents always had accompaniment. They were never silent. I was also shocked that it was industry practice for directors or distributors to leave the choice of accompaniment to the player(s) in the cinema. I was surprised that the director/producer could surrender control of such a vital component of the viewing experience. There were cases of directors, like Vertov, who specially composed scores to accompany films but this was an exception.

Some screenings afforded rehearsals for the accompanists, others had to play on sight, interpreting the screen goings-on cold. Musicians evolved different ways of coping with having to produce so much music so often. There were songbooks with tunes that they could call upon so if you needed a tune for “stormy night”, or a “Persian bazaar” (Albert Kettlebay?), you could seek it out in the index. Under tight deadlines, they evolved a bag of tricks and used clichés freely to enhance the film going experience. Needless to say, few recordings of these performances remain.

For a contemporary musician interested in accompanying the Silents, with such a checkered and not particularly well-documented lineage, it is liberating yet frustrating. Liberating because it means that more often than not, he had free rein of what and how he wanted to perform. Yet frustrating because there is not so much as a primer to teach one how to play for the Silents. Reverting to the songbooks that were used is hardly inspiring. Besides, what was practiced in the past need not necessarily still apply since using original scores or instruments would be interesting insofar as it shed light on what the early audiences were exposed to. It still left a blank slate as to how the musician should play if the same film is to be enjoyed by contemporary audiences.

The musicians in the 2004 edition of the Giornate took up the challenge presented by the lack of clear direction from history. We saw a wide range of musical practices beyond the traditional piano set up. There was a specially commissioned score for the Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927) featuring the Theremin. The performance of Home Sweet Home featured an ensemble with two voices. There were also attempts at playing on a prepared piano (where nails and sticks are inserted on the strings inside the piano). I also heard a pianist sing along side what was on the screen during a screening of Vertov. Some of these attempts were more successful than others.

Of the films I attended, the one most memorable was “A Cottage on Dartmoor” (1929, Anthony Asquith) accompanied by Stephen Horne, There was a collective buzz that night borne of us having experienced a triumphal moment together. It was a beautiful film elevated by skillful and emotive accompaniment. What marked the performance was interestingly enough, silence. Cottage is a tale of a jealous man stalking his ex lover who is now happily married and living at a cottage in Dartmoor. I remember in particular two moments when silence was used to great effect, one, when the two protagonists were on a date at the cinema to watch a talkie. What we saw were expectant audiences waiting for the film and to start. When the film started we saw close ups of the delighted faces who heard voices for the first time. Horne stopped playing. This sleight of hand immediately highlighted the fact that we were two different audiences watching the same film 70 years apart. Our shock at hearing silence was matched the audience’s shock at hearing sound for the first time. I felt suspended in time. Horne, called attention to his role in the viewing experience by this paradoxical move. And it was enlightening. The other moment was a simple domestic scene, the jealous lover, a barber, shaves a client who happens to be the woman’s husband. The moment is fraught, will he slit his nemesis’ throat? He very deliberately sharpens the razor. As he takes the razor up to his neck, there is suddenly, silence. When I later asked Horne about how that inspired decision not to play came to be, he said that it was that was suggested to him by a colleague. He had a few rehearsals before he got the rhythm right. When he did play it that way, he found it very effective.

The experience with The Cottage on Dartmoor made me appreciate the live performance aspect of the screenings. How is my appreciation of film heightened by the fact that the music is played before me? Would my experience be different if the music was pre-recorded and played alongside the film? In the case of Cottage, my experience of the film was heightened because, there was a person who was watching the film and reacting to it in the same way as I. His presence helped me along, corroborated with my experience of the film. This is important, especially with material that is far removed from my what I am normally familiar with. I found his guidance, helpful and vital.

In the footsteps of the masters, four young musicians were chosen to attend music accompaniment master class at the Giornate. The four are multi-talented, they hail from Vienna, Germany, Italy and USA. Two of them play more than one instrument. All had a gift of improvisation and had played for Silents before in their home countries. The School of Music and Image was held every morning from 11-12.30 for the duration of the Giornate. It is conducted by Neil Brand with input from other musicians who made guest appearances. I attended the classes as an observer because I was curious if musical accompaniment could really be taught. I found myself learning a lot about filmmaking and film watching. Brand showed fragments of films and he had the students play to it, cold as they would in an actual performance. The examples are carefully chosen to illustrate tricky situations that a silent film pianist may encounter. He taught them how to roll with the punches and gave practical tips on how to deal with difficult scenarios. The main point he made was, they had to be alert and react to a scene quickly. Is he the villain (He wears white shoes!)? Does the sequence look like it will be a long one? Familiarity with the codes and filmic idioms come with experience he said. The important thing was, once that split second impression is registered, the musician could not dither, but had to commit to it and to play out that impression.

One of the topics covered was how to play a long drawn out scene without running out of musical ideas, especially a scene whose length cannot be determined before hand. Brand showed a film where a storm is in full force and in this tornado, a girl us about to be raped and a train about to crash (events that take place in a storm at night). The scene went on at length without reaching a climax. He suggested that the musicians modulate to a lower key, rather than play in the same key all the time. This gives the audience a sense of change and at the same time it gives the pianist room to maneuver higher if the climax comes along later.

In another earlier scene where the villain is first appears (we know because he is too suave, too well dressed for this little town, and the white), Brand suggested that rather than announce his appearance in a marked way, to take the soft approach. All the scene needed was a slight turn of the cog to suggest that something was out of joint. Meting out information a little at a time allows the musician to save his musical reserves for the climax. It also heightens the excitement for the audience, because less is more. Restraint was key.

In another session, Brand showed Keaton’s the Three Ages (Buster Keaton, 1923), a comedy which saw Keaton vying for a girl against Wallace Beery a much stronger man. The same story line is repeated in three different epochs, Keaton is a club bearing cave man, a roman soldier and a dandy in the contemporary swinging 20’s. Brand suggested that a musician would quickly run out of tricks to sustain a feature if he took the comic route wholly. He suggested that the musician play the tussle for the girl as a drama. Playing a comedy straight made it funnier. He added that Keaton takes sad music better than Chaplin because Keaton had the face to carry it and sad music could be used ironically in Keaton’s case. The students discussed the notion of Mickey Mousing (where every gag, whimper or door slam is mirrored in the music, as in cartoons) and they arrived at the conclusion that it is not necessary that they reflect every bang in their music if it detracts from the direction of their playing.

Brand touched on the awkward situations where the musician is unsure where the action is heading. To illustrate this point, he showed Fred Zinneman’s silent masterpiece, People on Sunday (1930). The film is about four young people and their relationships to each other, which shifts quietly over the course of a picnic outing. There are moments in the film where nothing seems to happen (four chatting amicably on a hillside). Brand suggests that in this situation, it would be all right for the musician not to know and to play it “unresolved” because it reflected the confusion on the screen. The point was that the musician had to commit to a tone (even if it was an “unresolved” one) and see it through or the audience would be confused even further

Brand touched on the uncomfortable situation where the film was a dud. He says that while he “plays each film as a masterpiece”, giving his best until it is proven otherwise, if it is a dud, he helps out where he can and when he can no longer help, treads water until the end of the film.
One aspect of musicianship that was not covered in much detail was the choice of music for a film. Donald Susan showed a clip of a western and threw it open to the students, asking them what kind of music they would pick for that scene. One played a Bonanza theme, another, fiddle-like music and yet another suggested Aaron Copland. Is one choice better than the other? By the end of the master class, I realised that one could take up any of those suggestions as a starting point, it depended on his personal preference. The craft lay in whether the musician could develop and extrapolate on the theme he had chosen, colouring it with his interpretation of the scene to serve the dramatic needs of the film. This takes practice, great skill and sensitivity.

Tama Karena from New Zealand said, that when he plays to a film, he relates his whole self to the film. The sounds that emanate from him are his unmediated response to the film, he cannot divorce his personality from his playing. Brand adds that his playing is a purely emotive response to the film, part of his effort to “play it like a masterpiece”. Philip Carli after a rigourous Three Songs of Lenin (Dziga Vertov, 1935), proclaimed that while he did not share Vertov’s politics, he played it so that the audience would rush out to become Socialists as Vertov would have wanted. All three acknowledge their roles as mediums for the films, conjuring the messages to light for an audience far removed from their making.

Gestures of Resistance: An Interview with Tan Pin Pin.

This interviewed by Joanne Leow appeared in Issue 88 of Senses of Cinema, published in October 2018. The interview itself was conducted in November the year before during a retrospective of my films at RIDM, Montreal.

Tan was born in 1969 in Singapore and was trained in law in the United Kingdom and in documentary filmmaking in the United States. Her experimental documentaries and award-winning short films have consistently evinced an awareness of the Singapore’s cramped and disciplined spatialities. Her first made for television documentary Moving House (2001), for instance, chronicles the exhumation of graves in Singapore driven by urban development and features a final haunting image of a columbarium filmed in a manner that makes it an undeniable visual echo of Singapore’s public housing flats. Her most recent film In Time To Come (2017) is a time capsule of the rituals, demolitions, and patterns in everyday Singaporean life. The film asks what is worth preserving in contemporary life.

In between these two works, Tan has made over a dozen other documentaries and short films, the most famous and popular being Singapore GaGa which played to packed halls and theatres all over the island. The film is an aural record of the disappearing sounds of the island: busker songs that wind their way around our hearts, the cacophony of footsteps in an underpass, the specific hollow echoes of void decks and an eclectic range of songs that reflect the city’s polyglot, cosmopolitan, postcolonial nature. Her follow-up Invisible City (2007) is in her words, “a documentary about documenteurs,” “an ode” to all those who made Singapore the subject of their work. In this later film, she seeks to understand the impulse that drives these chroniclers, while bringing their lost histories to light. Her most controversial film, To Singapore, With Love (2013), was filmed entirely outside the country, documenting the emotionally constrained lives of political exiles from the country. The film was banned for public screenings in Singapore despite appeals by Tan and fellow filmmakers. She also filmed a short dramatic film, Pineapple Town, as part of the commissioned omnibus of Singapore films 7 Letters (2015) for the nation’s 50th anniversary.

By revealing the constructed and conditional aspects of Singapore’s history and spaces, Tan’s work allows us to depart not just from Singapore as mapped space but Singapore’s official history as mapped time. Tan’s directorial vision weaves alternative chronotopes of Singapore that are open-ended, frayed at the edges and still in the process of becoming. These revelations are often tied to the slow, contemplative pace of her films, her refusal to move quickly over the everyday, and the unpredictable or seemingly random aspects of her filmic space. Jini Kim Watson notes how Tan is profoundly conscious of the “highly formulaic elements… the militarized, productivist and multiculturalist logic… of the most disciplined and value-added workforces in the world.” 1

Tan’s films’ polyphonies and digressions are particularly powerful for their eschewal of any grand narrative to describe a city-state whose government is singularly obsessed with its teleological progress. She does this with the full awareness that memory can never be complete, thorough, or exhaustive. Indeed, therein lies its power. This unmooring of memory from an official nationalism is echoed in the free associative rhythms of Tan’s films. The film’s desire for the past refuses a totalizing agenda, is not for profit, and does not pin Singapore or its inhabitants down. This indeterminacy makes memory open to the possibilities of other histories that challenge the singularity of the official history. These histories leave the film’s viewers open to a whole range of complex and nuanced meanings.

This interview was conducted in Montreal, Canada in November 2017 on the occasion of the Montreal International Documentary Festival’s retrospective of Tan’s entire oeuvre over four nights. This was the first time that all her films were shown in sequence, something that would not be possible in Singapore since the state has refused to issue a classification rating for To Singapore, with Love which effectively means it cannot have public screenings. In our conversation, Tan reflects on the body of her work, the politics of documentary filmmaking in Singapore, and her hopes for the country.

Joanne Leow: I think it’s really interesting that it’s only possible to see all your films together outside Singapore, here in Montreal, since To Singapore, with Love is banned there.

Tan Pin Pin: It’s interesting to see all these films consecutively actually. I just feel as if I’ve just started. I feel like I’ve just started and oh my goodness, it’s the wrong time to have a retrospective now.

JL: What are some of the through threads that you see in your work, though, now that you have the opportunity to review it in this retrospective?

TPP: I feel as if I am trying to conjure up ghosts. I see it Invisible City, To Singapore, with Love, and The Impossibility of Knowing. It’s as if I am trying to speak for, bring forth, bring notice to people events or places that can’t speak for themselves, which makes me a temple medium. And a medium should not just conjure up what is, a medium should conjure up what could be. And what we have lost, so it’s multidimensional. If it was entirely representational in a way that sometimes fiction is, I would be shortchanging the stories that I am trying to tell.

JL: it’s interesting to me because you are kind of venturing into the realm of speculative ideas. What do you do to make that apparent in a nonfictional documentary? How do you think you’re depicting things that could have been? What techniques do you usually go for to try and do that?

TPP: The wonderful thing about the cinematic medium is that it allows you to fill in the gaps yourself as a viewer. So much of great film is about the act of engaging the viewer in such a way so that the viewer is participating in the storytelling as well. I myself try to do it in different ways. For example in The Impossibility of Knowing, it was a direct attempt to push the limits of an image to see if a scene of trauma was filmed in provocative and film noir-ish ways, whether the traumas that had taken place in those places could be communicated to the viewer with just the address placed over the image. It didn’t quite work, so we added a voice over where Crimewatch presenter, Lim Kay Tong reads the news reports of the accidents that happened in those locales 2. What you have is a still of the scene, and address appears and voice over comes on speaking of the tragedy that took place there.

In In Time to Come, we intercut scenes of daily rituals together, scenes like fire drills, morning assemblies, grand openings, to give an idea of timelessness in the sense that it is not clear when these films were shot. At a certain point, the film lifts into what could be perceived as a future Singapore, before it drifts back again to what appears to be the past. The time frame shifts through sound design and through editing.

In To Singapore, with Love, a film about Singapore political exiles, we made a very deliberate decision not to show any scenes of Singapore. The only scene we have of Singapore is of a very transitory space, the Singapore Changi airport. So from these views of exiles who have not been back to Singapore, some for more than 40 years, you had to conjure up an image of Singapore from their viewpoints, their descriptions of what they did, what they had done, why they had to leave, and their lives now, the viewer has to imagine the country today. My job as a director is to reduce information, while keeping the enquiry and curiosity of the viewer alive.

JL: What is really evocative for me is that poem Chan Sun Wing reads in To Singapore, with Love, where he names the places, he names the streets in Singapore. And obviously, those street names for him, embedded as they are in the past, they are so significant, each name means so much…

TPP: Yes, he names the places, very specifically. So does Ang Swee Chai when she says, “I want to be back at 100A Serangoon Road”, it is her Serangoon Road home of 40 years ago. Tan Wah Piow too gives a very specific address of his home in Joo Chiat. I could make another version of The Impossibility of Knowing, this time filming homes of Singapore political exiles, where they once lived, and where they are not able to return to. It would be an interesting portrait of their experience and of the country.

JL: Your work is concerned with an idea of time in a country where time is not only amnesiac but also very regulated. Not only in our everyday lives where we have the ordinary work day or migrant workers working around the clock, but also in the sense that in Singapore time is already mapped out and planned out for decades to come. For instance in the Master Plan, what do we want to achieve in 5, 10 or 30 years.

TPP: I think for In Time To Come that was exactly what I was trying to grapple with. One of the things that I filmed in In Time To Come was the morning assemblies. And when I first came across that morning assembly, one of the things I noticed was how unchanged it had been in the past 30 years since I was in school. You would never imagine that such a ritual would have been maintained for so long. But then it’s all related back to the fact that Singapore has been governed by the same political party for so many years. So the hierarchical format of the school assembly is of course just a direct analogy of how Singapore has been governed. And my idea was to show the sameness, the repetition and maybe to suggest the idea that we haven’t actually moved in spite of all of these changes. The same theme is covered in 9th August, a short film I made which mined 42 years of National Day Parade footage to show that camera angles for that bombastic annual event had not changed in all these years too.

JL: Saying that we haven’t changed is something quite radical, when we always think about progress. We’re moving forward!

TPP: Yes! We’re moving forward, we have terminal 4 now at Changi Airport, we have a new expressway. But what I am proposing through In Time to Come, is that we haven’t actually moved, nothing has changed. And so how do you translate that idea of nothing changing but everything changing at the same time? So you’re forward looking, you’re future looking, but you haven’t actually moved.

JL: I remember an earlier interview when you said that you didn’t want to make political films and if that has changed over the years, then what has changed in your thinking about being political? And can you think of a moment or a series of moments when it came to you that your filmmaking had changed or your purpose had changed?

TPP: I think the question of whether it is political or not is not the right question. Documentaries have always been read to be “more political” just by virtue of it being a documentary, than say fiction film. So whether I wanted it or not, just making a documentary, highlighting issues and showing Singapore as is, is already considered a political act in a country where not long ago, people were noticed for having views. In Singapore, being an artist can be a political gesture. Many of my films were made to find out how I feel about certain issues, and the audience follows me as I pursue a line of enquiry. I don’t start a project knowing the point I want to make. For To Singapore, with Love, making the film led me to question the shaky foundations of the ruling party, realising this and continuing with it was an important moment for me.

JL: Do you think that in course of 1996 to 2017 that your concerns and goals have changed? What are a couple of watershed moments that you felt compelled to film something or compelled to edit a particular way?

TPP: In 1995, while I was shooting Moving House (1996), I wanted to give up before the shoot because though I am not superstitious, I was freaked out at having to go to the Chinese cemetery in the middle of the night to cover the exhumation of a grave. Even with a crew, I was scared. I remember telling myself then, there was no one I could push this task to, it was either me, or this scene would not be filmed. But I wanted the exhumation of my great-grandparents grave documented for posterity, so I bit my lip and shot it. I remember feeling very resentful that I had to be the one to do it. Comical, when you think about it now.

When we are shooting, there is always the idea that what we are shooting may or may not end up in the screen because you can always drop the scene in the edit suite, so when I was shooting To Singapore, with Love, going around the world, interviewing Singaporean political exiles, I didn’t think much of what I was doing until I got into the edit room. There was a moment though, during a shoot at Changi Airport where I was to film Ho Juan Thai’s kids and wife arriving in Singapore, I had just flew in from Hat Yai and went straight the next terminal without a break. I was emotionally tired from the Thai trip and when I started shooting a grandmother 3 meeting her grandson for the first time, I just burst into tears.

So I thought, this has never happened before. Why was I crying? I was angry at the situation of Juan Thai being left in Johor Bahru while his mother met his sons in Changi. The application of the Internal Security Act had wreaked havoc in many families since Independence. Singaporeans needed to know about this. I continued to shoot, even though I felt shaky physically and emotionally.

JL: You’ve always said that you make films to satisfy your curiosity. But to make To Singapore, with Love was in some ways to satisfy everyone’s desire for a fuller accounting of that point in our history.

TPP: In the dark of the night, alone in the edit room, I was going through rushes and stumbled upon footage of Chan San Wing stoically reading the poem of him missing Singapore. By the end of the poem, I was sobbing, from the futility of his lot. They have been censored out of Singapore completely. I was also very aghast that the system could inspire so much fear in me. Fear of what? The proverbial midnight raids, incarceration, confiscation of cameras and computers that Singapore activists past and present had experienced. I asked myself if I wanted to cross the Rubicon and for whom this film was for.

JL: You decided to cross the Rubicon and many of us are very grateful.

TPP: I decided to cross the Rubicon because I felt I had no right to call myself a film director if with all the training that I’ve had, the scholarships that I was endowed with, if at this point, I was going to turn tail and not do what needed to be done. I could not hide the footage away and pretend it never happened.

Originally, I had wanted to take a more impressionistic and experimental film. In the end, I chose a more accessible form, consisting of talking head interviews with text and newspaper clippings filling in information whenever there were informational gaps that had to be addressed. This film was for my retired teacher aunty living in Siglap. Also, I felt that since the interviewees have been censored, I wanted to give them a platform to speak for themselves.

JL: What I find really interesting is not just the fact that it’s a film about political exiles, or being away, and that whole idea of displacement and history, that’s all very important and crucial to the narrative, but it was that you added that “with love.” What kind of love is expressed in the film? Sometimes it’s patriotic fervor, like with Ho Juan Thai, but there’s also love in Francis’s song, love in Chan San Wing’s poem. So how did your understanding of what the word “love” is in the national context change or come to mean something else after you completed it?

TPP: I have to say it was a tactical decision to name it that. Because I thought if you couch a potentially incendiary film with very soft words, it might kind of… you know, censors might not…

JL: Was that a little naïve on your part?

TPP: Yes, what was I thinking? Maybe I should have had a little plushie that came with the film as well, to temper the edge. For To Singapore, with Love, since the state archives from that period have not been released, I could not verify a lot of information from that period beyond first person accounts. However, the exiles still have strong feelings for Singapore, and they can talk about what they feel about Singapore, the circumstances of their escape without being accused of being inaccurate. So the film had a strong emotional undercurrent.

To answer your earlier question, this film tried to define “love” in a national context. The word is overused by propaganda committees to the extent that it has become meaningless to most people. But I wanted it addressed without sarcasm or irony. What does it mean to love your country? Who do these activists they speak for?

JL: You have spoken about how hard it was to see To Singapore, with Love banned, in Singapore, and to go through that process of not even being able to distribute it from the country. How do you think that will affect and has affected your filmmaking going forward? Or when you are looking for potential funding?

TPP: I don’t think I’ll be asked to direct the National Day Parade! My subsequent films were all commissioned before the ban so it’s hard for me to say where I might stand moving forward with regard to state support. But I have been making independent documentaries for over 20 years in Singapore. I have survived this long, using creative and lifestyle strategies developed in those years. I will continue to make work and keep an independent stance moving forward.

JL: What kinds of films do you think you would make without this uncertainty, without this unspoken context of what lines you can or cannot cross?

TPP: No, I’m not bound by any boundaries anymore, because as I said the watershed moment would be the making of To Singapore, with Love, because once you do something like that, all the emotional heavy lifting, in terms of the conversations you have with yourself about why you do what you do would already have been done. I would like to live outside Singapore for a period. A change of scenery would be good, to see if being in a less censorious regime can inspire other kinds of film.

JL: What kind of hope or vision do you have for Singaporean artistic community and Singaporean audiences in general? The ones who tried to see the film but couldn’t see the film, who may have secretly seen the film. But also the ones abroad, what hope do you have? What would you like to see?

TPP: Ideally this film would be taught in schools. It should be part of reading lists in social studies or Singaporean history. I want this film to inspire questions like what it means to be a citizen of a country or what is Singapore. Is there a role for civil disobedience or the Internal Security Act? A country is always in the state of becoming and allowing students to understand that their voices and actions can shape the country is important.

JL: To also have the younger generation have a chance to understand how the country was put together, the legacies of that communist period, the colonial powers…

TPP: Decisions that had to be made for better or worse. I would like them to consider the need for reconciliation, and how reconciliation can help the country moving forward.

JL: A kind of mature and public conversation about amnesty, about the return of exiles?

TPP: Yes, amnesty, what does it mean for the country and why it is important? The tone of the film was pitched at that frequency because I hoped it could start conversations. It could have been a lot more emotional. But I decidedly did not take that tone because I felt it would have closed the possibility of having this kind of conversation that gave both parties a chance to air their views. Alas, this olive branch was not taken up, they banned the film.

JL: You’ve always said in this and other films that you use the camera to get to know your subject better. What have you learned about Singapore and Singaporeans in the past two decades that might not have been so apparent to you, that was surprising to you? Or in some ways, represented something exceptional and unique in the way we go about living our lives in the kind of context that we are in?

TPP: For most people in the West, they don’t understand how Singaporeans can tahan 4 being Singaporeans. But didn’t you say anything when that happened? How can you just sit there? So why have my countrymen been seen to be so particularly docile in all these matters that seem so important to others? Is it because they don’t know about it? We have lost our voice and tragically, we don’t know it. We may not even know what it feels like to have one.

JL: I do think there is a certain level of ignorance. That basic “we don’t know”. I mean I didn’t know so many of the stories until you brought them to light.

TPP: Maybe the scarier version is that even though we know, we don’t care? Hence, I am always looking for moments of defiance, when people act up and rebel because they do. A lot of my films try to show that moment of defiance, that gleam in the eye. You see this in Singapore GaGa. Even in Invisible City you see these young archaeologists doing the backbreaking work of remembering.

JL: One of the things that I’ve learnt from your films is what defiance looks like in our context. It’s very different from defiance that we are accustomed to like loud protests or dramatic gestures but it’s in the everyday.

TPP: Right. There are little gestures of everyday resistance in every one of my films. In the final ceremony in Moving House, the affected family got a Taoist medium to apologise to their exhumed parents who were evicted from their gravesite to a columbarium, by saying they were required by the government to do it.

JL: Seen together then, what do you hope to leave behind with your body of work?

TPP: I would like to broaden the idea of what cinema can be in Singapore. That’s why I was intent that In Time To Come had to have a theatrical release in Singapore. And a lot of work goes into making a theatrical release despite the cost. We need to push the envelope of what Singaporeans get to see in a Cineplex, and people whom you don’t expect to go will get something out of the experience.

I want to broaden the idea of Singapore. Singapore is a work in progress and we all have a part to play in deciding what form it takes.

The author acknowledges that this interview was made possible by funding from the University of Saskatchewan.

Endnotes:
Jini Kim Watson, “Aspirational City.” Interventions 18, no. 4 (July 3, 2016): p.547
Crimewatch is a long running television series in Singapore that reenacts crime investigations
Ho Juan Thai’s mother
The Malay word for “endure.”

Photo Credit: Ulysse del Drago

IDFA Doclab Academy

I just attended Doclab Academy, the interactive-storytelling talent development Academy that is a sidebar of IDFA, the Cannes of documentaries. I can’t recommend this Academy highly enough though the film festival itself, separate from DocLab, is great too.

The full programme and an idea of participants are within below. Closing date is Sept each year. Please apply.

This programme is covered by IMDA under their media labs fund (which they call “Film Mentorship Initiative“). For those interested in just documentaries, there is the IDFA Academy which you can apply for.

idfa-doclab-academy-program-info

“Each Dawn a Censor Dies” – Jeu De Paume

The following article was originally published on Jeu De Paume.

“Each Dawn a Censor Dies by Nicole Brenez.

Tan Pin Pin. No vacation from politics.

Filmmaker, photographer and artist Tan Pin Pin is among the great contemporary voices of the art scene in Singapore, the city state to which most of her output has been devoted. Her work initially impresses through its formal diversity, unfailingly offering the radicalisation of a filmic resource: a record of the exhumation and removal of a tomb (belonging to the directors grandparents) in the name of rapid urbanisation Moving House (version one, 1997) rubs shoulders with the immolation of a Barbie doll in Microwave (2000); a 38-minute sequence shot crossing the island taken from the Pan Island Expressway 80km / h (2003) is followed by a pointillist portrait of the city through its banned songs and dialects in Singapore Gaga (2005); a strictly visual kinetic collage of footage from television archives showing four decades of national celebration 9th August (2006) gives way to a strictly textual semantic interrogation of the word remember in Thesaurus (2012). If every one of these films boasts its own unique formal apparatus, they are all energised by the same critical task of describing, safeguarding and promoting a multi-ethnic Singapore, one that remains both multi-cultural and fraternal in the face of the governments coercive standardisation policies. Moving House (version two, 2001), Gravediggers Luck (2003), Invisible City (2007), The Impossibility of Knowing (2010) and Yangtze Scribbler (2012) all confront death, from the results of criminal lives to the sometimes tiny vestiges human existence leaves behind, as well as providing support for those in danger of simply vanishing without trace. Such a sense of responsibility to collective history, which carries living individuals and dead bodies along with it like wisps caught in a whirlwind, actively seeks out every possible visual and aural means of first countering the Singapore authorities artificially imposed view of progress as a forced march away from independence, then repairing the damage caused to collective memory, culture and emotion.

From her first short film, Lurve Me Now (1999), an erotic fantasy involving two Barbie dolls anticipating Albertina Carris Barbie tambin puede estar triste (Barbie Gets Sad Too, 2001), shot in Argentina two years later Tan Pin Pin has endured censorship. Her first documentary to achieve international success, Singapore Gaga, encountered censorship problems simply because the use of an ambiguous word in Malay animals at first caused it to be labelled a threat to national security. But with To Singapore, With Love (2013), which gave voice to Singapores political exiles, the entire film was banned, an act of prohibition which has not only been maintained to this day, but also extended to all distribution media.

A useful list of films censored in Singapore

———

Nicole Brenez
Translated by Brad Stevens

Nicole Brenez: Can you tell us about your family background, education, artistic environment? Did your education in Law at Oxford, UK, helped you to confront situations of censorship?

Tan Pin Pin: I grew up in the 70s and 80s Singapore, at a time where economic imperatives trumped all other imperatives. The whole nation was marshaled into wealth creation and improving our GDP. My growing up years were surrounded by songs such as Good better best, never let it rest! Though our material quality of life improved quickly, civil rights were suspended. For example I found out recently while researching To Singapore, with Love, that over 800 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act in the 1970s alone, a huge percentage for a small population of 2.3 million. In the days before the Internet, the arrests went under the radar, people simply disappeared or were later exiled. There is so much in the 1970s that remains unaccounted for in the Singapore story.

My parents were the first few in their families to go to university. They were architects so we had a very interesting childhood spending weekends visiting construction sites. I went to state schools where art had a very small part in the curriculum. In my teens, I discovered the BBC World Service on the FM dial. By the time, I finished secondary school, I knew I wanted to get out of Singapore to go to England where it seemed more free and more humane.

I won a scholarship to study law at Oxford University, law for no particular reason other than I was more likely to secure a Singapore scholarship with that course. At Oxford, I discovered photography and art books in the city library. Within the first semester, I knew I was in the wrong course, I should have gone to art school instead. But I decided to finish the course to keep my scholarship. Meanwhile, I spent all my free time taking photos and developing prints in the dark room. If I had not left Singapore, I am not sure I would be making films today. In those striven times, art-making was too frivolous an undertaking and I would have had no support.

I was a lawyer for six days before I left the profession. In fact, I made my first film, Moving House (1996) as a trainee lawyer. Through the law course, I understood how power comes to be and is devolved. I also learnt the difference between being legally right and morally right. In Singapore, the two are sometimes very far apart.

NB: What was your first encounter with Singaporean censorship? Can you explain the alleged reasons? Did you made any cut in the film?

TPP: My first encounter with Singapore censorship and self-censorship was meeting the first opposition Member of Parliament, the legendary J.B. Jeyaretnam [Leader of the Workers Party, center-left, from 1971 to 2001] on the street in the 1990s. Through a series of defamation suits by the PAP [Peoples Action Party, center-right, ruling the country continuously since 1959] leaders, he became bankrupt so he couldnt run for office. I saw him on the street, ringing a bell, selling copies of his Partys publication, I wanted to buy a copy but I was too scared to be seen doing that, as if I would be guilty by association, of what, I wasnt sure.

To this day, the sight of this solitary man seeking out a space to speak, and my woeful avoidance of him still haunts me. Later, two Singapore film lecturers made a short documentary about him, Vision of Persistence [2002, by Kai Sing, Mirabelle Ang and Christina Mok]. The film was mysteriously pulled out from the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) last minute. I heard the filmmakers were threatened and the film has disappeared.

My first personal encounter of censorship was for a student short I made, Lurve Me Now (1999). It was slated to show at SIFF. It featured a Barbie doll being felt up by a hand amidst heavy breathing. The film was banned by the censors for, of all things, its sound track. Censorship through a direct film ban, through redacting Chinese dialects in the mass media in the late 1970s or through the sudden withdrawal of the Vision of Persistence, was all it took to render the something non-existent. I did not make any recuts for the censors, it did not occur to me to bend to their will.

NB: When you decided to shoot To Singapore, With Love (2013), were you already aware that your documentary will endure banning?

TPP: I did not start out to make this documentary. Like many of my other films, To Singapore, with Love took shape organically. I was making a video about Singapores coastline from afar. In the process of researching the idea of being outside, I stumbled upon Escape from the Lions Paw [Escape from the Lions Paw: Reflections of Singapores Political Exiles, Soh Lung Teo, Yit Leng Low, Singapore, Function 8, 2012], a book of first-person accounts by Singapore political exiles, people who remain outside the country, but not by choice. I decided to interview one of them, Dr. Ang Swee Chai, based in London, who by chance was in nearby Malaysia at that time. I was so moved by her account of exile that I decided to change focus and To Singapore, with Love was born. Later, I interviewed eight more exiles in London, Malaysia and Thailand. Some have not been back for more than 50 years. They talk about why they left, but they mostly talk about their lives today and their relationship with Singapore. They were of different political persuasions and different generations of activists. Some were communists, some were student activists, others were from the Christian Left.

I made this film because I myself wanted to better understand Singapore. I wanted to understand how we became who we are by addressing what was banished and unspoken for. I was also hoping that the film would open up a national conversation to allow us to understand ourselves as a nation better too.

I realised that this film could be banned when I was editing. Two films featuring former long-term political detainees talking about their detention without trial by another Singaporean director, Martyn See, were banned too [Said Zahari: 17 years, 2007, about Said Zahari ; Lim Hock Siew, 2010]. I knew that any suggestion that the Internal Security Act was used to detain and silence political opponents (rather than just communists) would be problematic to the states cleaned up version of the Singapore story.

Though fearful, I finished the film, partly inspired by the idealism of the people I had interviewed. I only exhaled when I sent the film out of the country. It premiered at Busan International Film Festival. In the end, the film was indeed banned because it was a threat to national security.

NB: Did all the exiles you wish to interview agreed to be filmed? Were they under surveillance?

TPP: The people I contacted all agreed to be filmed. I had sent them my older films so that they could get a sense of my work. I am not sure if they are under surveillance. They have been away from Singapore for more that 35 to 50 years.

NB: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared: the political exiles featured in the documentary should not be allowed the chance to air their own self-serving accounts of the fight against communism. Is it usual in Singapore that a PM makes public comments about a film?

TPP: The bedrock of the Singapore narrative is built upon her fight against the communists more than 50 years ago. Using all the laws and armory at our disposal, we won that war and look how far we have come today. Hence it behooved Prime Minister, when queried, to justify the ban using the same Cold War rhetoric that the modern Singapore state was built upon.

The films main subtext, that in certain cases, the state overused its powers to silence political opponents was not addressed. Instead, the PM and all the government responses harped on the crimes committed by communists (which those interviewees who were communists did not deny) totally ignoring the substance of the film, which shows what a self-serving act of censorship the ban was.

The PM also said that my film was one-sided. I do not believe that balance or neutrality are useful ways to think about history, especially Singapore history. I am interested in providing alternatives. In fact these alternatives balance out the dominant accounts propagated by textbooks and state propaganda.

The whole event clarified for me that we do not own our history. Films are banned or disappear, archives even those relating to events that happened more than 50 years ago are out of bounds, all to protect the official version of our history.

NB: A collective of 350 Singaporean organized a travel in Malaysia to attend a screening of To Singapore, With Love. Can you tell us about such an event? Is your film still prohibited in Singapore, even through the internet?

TPP: If one wants to learn about the reach of power in Singapore, they could study the immediate aftermath of this ban.

The film was originally slated to world premiere with my other films Invisible City (2007) and Singapore GaGa (2005) in a triple-bill organised by National University of Singapore (NUS). When the ban was announced, the university remained silent even though they were the organisers of the presentation. In less dysfunctional democracies, the organisers would be the first to speak for the film.

Instead, on the same day, 40 leading artists, filmmakers and civil society activists, most of whom had not seen the film, spoke for the film with a short statement asking the censors to reconsider the ban and to allow different expressions of our past.

A week later, several twenty something civil society activists, using social media, found anonymous donors and chartered coaches to go to neighbouring Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to watch the film where it was slated to screen at the Freedom Film Festival (FFF). So one afternoon, more than 350 Singaporeans crossed the border, curious to see what the fuss was about. FFF is a small travelling human rights festival. To cope with the unexpected swell in numbers, they opened more screening rooms throughout the hotel. We had to use bed sheets to erect screens and borrow extra projectors. I never would have imagined a Singapore film premiere (in Malaysia!) such as this, but at the same time I felt glad that Singaporeans marched with their feet to go where Singapore laws cannot reach to find out for themselves.

Today, the film can screen privately in Singapore, but public and ticketed screenings are forbidden, DVDs cannot be sold here too. The film can screen overseas, so apart from the festival circuit, Singaporeans overseas have also organized public screenings in Australia, Hong Kong, UK, USA and Canada. Singaporean students in USA and London have also organised campus tours of the film.

It can be seen online on the Vimeo VOD site, but if you access it from Singapore, you will see a Not available in your region message. The censors prohibited me to let those with Singapore IP addresses have access.

NB: How do you feel about the future of Singapore, which, in a way, is the time set in your new work, Pineapple Town (2015)?

TPP: Pineapple Town is a short film that was commissioned to celebrate 50 years of Singapores Independence. In the film, a mother tries to find out more about her adopted babys past. The final part of the film is set in the future where the adoptive mother brings her young daughter to visit the little Malaysian town where she was born to acknowledge her past, even the troubled bits. The film is hopeful, it shows it is ok to face up to the past, not bury it.

NB: Would you have an advice to formulate for filmmakers in repressive or even dictatorial situations from all over the world?

TPP : I proffer this advice that was given by Dr. Poh Soo Kai at his book launch. He is a former political detainee who was featured in To Singapore, with Love. His book is called Life in a Time of Deception [Function 8 Ltd and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2016].

He quotes from Paul A. Baran [Professor of Economics at Stanford University], who said in 1931, in the looming spectre of Hitler: And if the tribulations of the political humdrum and the disappointments of our last decade have caused many of you to desire some political tranquility, to desire a vacation from politics, you must repress this attack of weakness with all your might. This desertion from the political battleground is the greatest crime against humanity that one can commit, because the others, the reactionary backwards striving forces never quit, never allow themselves a vacation from politics. And if you, infuriated and embittered, now renounce the political struggle; if you sulkily stand off to the side with a dismissive wave of your hand; then you leave the politics to the others; then you subject yourself to their domination.

Official website
http://www.tosingaporewithlove.com
Full account of the ban
http://sensesofcinema.com/2015/documentary-in-asia/to-singapore-with-love-documentary/

Paris-Singapore, March 2016.
Deep thanks to Silke Schmikle.”

“7 Letters is Singapore’s entry to the Oscars” – Mocha Chai Laboratories

This interview was originally published in an email newsletter by Mocha Chai Laboratories on Dec 18, 2015.

Mocha Chai Labs Newsletter Header

We speak to Tan Pin Pin, the sole female director among the seven. A documentary filmmaker, she tells us this is her first piece of fiction work since her film school days.

PINEAPPLE TOWN allegorises political separation as familial separation as Singaporean adoptive parents search Malaysia for the biological mother – the “real” mother – of their daughter.

What is the inspiration behind your film in 7 Letters?
I wanted to make a film about a family’s healing and reconciliation with the past. I think as we move forward, we should try to understand how we came to be. I also wanted to reflect on our relationship with Malaysia.

As film directors, what do you consider as most important in a film? Eg. Story, Script, Production Value, Casting
Concept is important, a holistic idea that is coherent, that is followed throught. I don’t think a film needs to be realistic or have great production values, but it must be coherent. Having said that, since I was going for realism in this film, I learnt the importance of casting, I never had to do it before! I am glad the actors came on board. We paid special attention to the smaller roles too.

How would you rank, in order of importance what makes a good film in your opinion?
1) Story/scripting or concept
2) Casting (where applicable)
3) Editing
4) Cinematography/Location/Set design/makeup/costume (all related)
5) Realistic scheduling

What can we look forward from Tan Pin Pin for the upcoming year?
New documentary coming out in 2016.

Anything you would like to add?
Im very happy (on the Oscar selection) and hope for the best! Thanks very much for the effort, Isnor (our colorist) put into the film.

To Singapore, with Love is now on DVD

Homepage Slider Images DVD Sale
 
You can now buy the DVD or stream “To Singapore, with Love” if you are outside Singapore.

Whether you buy or stream the film, organise a screening. This film should not be watched alone. It needs to be experienced together with friends and family. After all, together, forward we go.

The DVD is a limited edition DVD, signed. The order window closes 31 July. So don’t wait!

If you appreciate the film and would like to support future projects, please consider making a contribution. Thank you.

With Love, from Singapore,
Tan Pin Pin

Make a Demand

Very happy to announce that some of my films are now available for rent via Vimeo on Demand (VOD).

You’ll be able to watch them on any device, including your smartphone and Apple TV – just need an Internet connection.

Singapore GaGa

Invisible City

New to VOD?
No worries. For step by step instructions, click here.

To Singapore, with Love is banned

The Media Development Authority of Singapore has banned To Singapore, with Love for “undermining national security”. Here is my statement in response, which first appeared on the film’s Facebook page.

STATEMENT BY TAN PIN PIN
Director and Producer of To Singapore, with Love

To Singapore with Love (2013) was slated to screen with my other films Invisible City (2007) and Singapore GaGa (2005) at the end of September 2014, in a triple-bill presented by National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum, an institution that I have had a long working relationship with in relation to my previous films.

Now the screenings will not take place.

I am very disappointed by the MDA decision to ban it — for myself, and also what it means for Singapore. Like many of my other films, To Singapore, with Love took shape organically. I was making a video about Singapores coastline from afar. In the process of researching the idea of being outside, I stumbled upon Escape from the Lions Paw (2012), a book of first-person accounts by Singapore political exiles, people who remain outside the country, but not by choice. I decided to interview one of them in Malaysia. I was so moved by her account that I decided to change focus and To Singapore, with Love was born. Like my other films mentioned above, this film is a portrait of Singapore; unlike the others, this film is shot entirely outside the country, in the belief that we can learn something about ourselves by adopting, both literally and figuratively, an external view.

For this film, I traveled to England, Malaysia and Thailand to interview the exiles to find out how they have lived their lives away from Singapore. Some have not been back for more than 50 years. They talk about why they left, but they mostly talk about their lives today and their relationship with Singapore. They show us the new lives they have created for themselves. One shows us around his noodle-making factory, we visit the law firm of another and play with the children of yet another exile. We also attend the funeral of one of them. Finally, we observe a family reunion that takes place in Johor Baru, the twinkling lights of Singapore a short distance away. The focus is on their everyday lives. These exiles all have different ideological positions and are of different ages; some are communists, others are activists from the Christian Left, yet others are socialist politicians or former student activists. But their feelings for Singapore is intense and heartfelt, albeit sometimes ambivalent, even after so long away. Those feelings (more than the circumstances of their exile, or even the historical “truth” that led to such exile) are what my film predominantly focuses on, because I feel that many viewers might relate to those feelings.

I made this film because I myself wanted to better understand Singapore. I wanted to understand how we became who we are by addressing what was banished and unspoken for. Perhaps what remains could be the essence of us today. I was also hoping that the film would open up a national conversation to allow us to understand ourselves as a nation better too.

I am therefore very disappointed that my film is banned. By doing this, MDA is taking away an opportunity for us Singaporeans see it and to have a conversation about it and our past that this film could have started or contributed to. It is vital for us to have that conversation on our own terms, especially on the eve of our 50th birthday. We need to be trusted to be able to find the answers to questions about ourselves, for ourselves.

It is my deepest regret that we cannot have such a conversation here today. That conversation did start when some Singaporeans saw it at film festivals overseas. Some of the reactions include; Tender and searching Extremely moving and thought-provoking and A Must see. Now, the irony that a film about Singapore exiles is now exiled from Singapore as well – this is not something I ever wanted or hoped for.

I hope to be able to show it in Singapore one day, and may re-submit for a rating in the future.

Tan Pin Pin
10 September 2014

More information
Films official site
Films Facebook page
Directors filmography
==================

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Jurying at Busan International Film Festival

Growing up in the 70’s, S. Korea never featured in my minds eye. It was either Japan, everything imported from Japan was of the highest quality, from stationary to all our electronics, Great Britain, I was weaned on the BBC World Service, or the USA, the setting of all my favourite television shows. Korea, if it featured at all, was represented by Ssangyong, the mega construction company who built our train lines in the 80’s or it was a country riddled with North Korean spies who were always defecting. I never saw them as cultural beacons who would make such an impact on my filmmaking life. As we speak, To Singapore, with Love has completed a three city tour screening at Busan, Seoul and Incheon. Busan International Film Festival supported both To Singapore, with Love (2013) and Invisible City (2007) through the Asian Cinema Fund, they were the first people who gave this films the huge vote of confidence. DMZ Documentary Film Festival also commissioned “The Impossibility of Knowing” (2010). Most recently, I was asked to be on the Jury of the Wide Angle Section at the Busan International Film Festival. An honour, I quickly accepted, it my chance to pay back, even a little bit. Come the first two weeks of October, I will be in Busan watching documentaries, I can’t think of anything better.

50th anniversary film Omnibus

Documentary directors, at least in Singapore, are often asked when we will make a dramatic film – as if all the documentary training we have is expected to lead to this moment. Well the moment has arrived! Together with 6 other directors, all familiar names, we are making a short film each around the theme of Singapore for this omnibus project. It’ll be Singapore filmmakers contribution to Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations. It’ll be my first time having to deal with actors 15 in years since my student film Rogers Park. Looking forward to it, sort of. What is my short about? More details will be revealed at the media conference in October. Akan Datang

SG50 today

To Singapore, with Love awarded Best Director at Dubai

Very happy to announce that To Singapore, with Love won the Best Director Award in the Muhr AsiaAfrica Documentary section, Dubai International Film Festival on 13 Dec 2013. The award was given by Sheik Mansoor bin Mohammed bin Rashid. I’d like to thank the crew, supporters and also the people I interivewed who shared their stories with me. ST report here

Dubai DIFF Sheikh+Mansoor+bin+Mohammed+bin+Rashid+Al+ml8ZsxVtz_dl

Review “To Singapore, with Love” ??? at Busan International Film Festival 2013

To Singapore, with Love was the Cine21 Busan Daily’s Critics Choice. Here’s their review and an interview with me.

The Cine21 Review

“This film is about Singapore, but not a single scene is from Singapore.

In the movie, several Singaporeans talk about their fatherland. Although they were exiled by Singaporean government decades ago and are still not permitted to enter the country, they have never have forgotten their country, not even a single moment. The film reflects the history of Singapore through the Singaporean exiles, who are making their way through life in foreign land such as London, Thailand, Malaysia, and they deliver a message for the future generations. To the exiles, Singapore is an object of love and hatred, where memories of the past, the scar of exile, and the ardent love that they have been carrying are all mixed-up. The scar has affected their children, some of whom also cannot get the Singaporean citizenship. However, some exiles get over the wound and rise to their feet to document their experiences in books and music, or they feel empowered to help other small nations with lesser power.

If you feel compassion or are touched while watching this documentary, To Singapore, with Love, maybe it is because of the format of the film. The productions ability to weave sentiment from small details, food, poetry, songs, and photos, that pull out emotional connection is impressive. A new production of Director Tan Pin Pin, who has been attempting to re-compose the identity of Singapore, which was also her homeland, through her previous films Invisible City and Singapore GaGa.

To Singapore, with Love is made in 2013 with the support of Asian Network of Documentary Fund, and will be featured as a world premiere at Busan International Film Festival. So, we get to watch this film by Director Tan Pin Pin, ahead of Singaporean audiences.”

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==============

The Cine21 interview

To new generations of Singaporeans, the documentary films of Director Tan Pin Pin, would be the reference of the past that is more valuable than history books. Her fatherland Singapore is an object that has fascinated and inspired her for a long time.

Through her previous works such as Singapore GaGa (2005) and Invisible City (2007), Singapores social classes, languages and spaces earned a new meaning. Her new production presented in Busan this year, is also a documentary about Singapore. Is she unable to get out of the charming space of Singapore? Ha ha, I receive proposals about filming a drama. I say, yes I will do it, But what can I do? Even though the opportunity to direct a dramatic movie finds me, whenever I hear anything related to Singapore, it becomes my first priority. I do not choose the subject, but the subject chooses me. It is interesting.

To Singapore, with Love is a story of exiles, who have been banished from Singapore, and who live in foreign land. Featuring the people who cannot lay their feet on their homeland, the movie talks about Singapore from the exiles perspective. To Director Tan Pin Pin, who wanted to make more a poetic movie, less a polemical
one, the film is a love letter to Singapore, as the title of the movie suggests. That is why she allocated much time on showing the poems and the songs written by the exiles who express their longing toward their hometown as well as the food they ate, and the photos from the past. How will Singaporeans react to the portrait of Singapore that is reflected in the eyes of the people who are outsiders but not complete strangers? She says what she wonders most is the response of the young Singaporean audience whom she hopes, will get to see this film sometime in the future.

??? ???????? ????? ?? ???? ??? ????? ? ??? ??? ??? ???. ???? ?? ????? ???? ??? ????? ???? ??? ????. (2005), (2007) ? ??? ??? ?? ????? ??, ??, ??, ???? ??? ??? ???. ?? ???? ??? ??? ?? ?? ????? ?? ??????. ??? ?????? ??? ???? ??? ??? ?? ??? ??. ???? ??? ???? ??? ?? ????. ?? ?? ?, ????? ???. ??? ???. ???? ??? ??? ??, ????? ?? ?? ???? ?? ?? ?? ?? ????? ?????. ?? ??? ???? ? ???, ??? ?? ????. ??? ???.? ??? ?????? ???? ???? ???? ????? ?? ????. ?? ?? ?? ? ?? ???? ????? ?????, ??? ??? ??? ??? ????? ????. ??????? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ???? ? ??? ????? ??? ??? ???? ???? ???? ??? ???. ????? ??? ???? ? ?? ??, ???? ??? ??? ??? ??? ???? ? ?? ??? ??? ??? ????. ???? ???? ??? ???? ?? ? ?? ???? ?? ?? ????? ???, ??????? ??? ?????. ??? ??? ??? ?? ? ?? ???? ???? ??? ?? ????? ???.

To Singapore, with Love ???

One and the half years in the making, my new film, To Singapore, with Love will world premiere at Busan International Film Festival on 6 October in the Documentary Competition. I look forward to going to Busan to attend the screenings and the Q&As. Looking to release the film in Singapore in early 2014.

Short Synopsis
To Singapore, with Love is a film about Singapore political exiles some who havent been back for more than 50 years. The exiles ruminate about their lives away from home. Its a portrait of Singapore, from the outside.

Director Tan Pin Pin attends a funeral in the hills of southern Thailand, a family reunion in Malaysia and goes for a drive through the English countryside, searching the world for the displaced souls of Singapore: different generations of Singaporean political exiles who have not been able to come home. Some have not returned for 50 years. She finds out how they have lived their lives away and how they still view the Singapore of their dreams. As they recount their lives to us, we see a City that could have been. A love letter to Singapore, shot entirely outside the country.

This film is made with the support of the Asian Cinema Fund, Busan International Film Festival, who also supported Invisible City (2007).

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Directed, Produced and Photographed by Tan Pin Pin
2013, 70min, DCP, English, Mandarin, Malay, Hainanese
with English and Chinese subtitles

postcard TSWL

2012 Highlights

A listing so that I can remember the year.

In Paris for the Snow City international premiere and became well-acquainted with the Georges Pompidou Centre . It opened in 1977, 35 years ago, and it is still so contemporary. To have the guts of a building all hanging out, smack in the middle of belle epoque Beaubourg…This building has to be experienced first hand. And of course Paris, the most beautiful city in the world

I went with the Singapore Heritage Society to visit Colonial Perak, Malaysia. While admiring the town planning of Taiping city centre on a blazing hot day, we stumbled upon the best Chendol in the world.

It was also wonderful to be acquainted with Ng Sek San’s architecture in Ipoh in Sekeping Kong Heng, a house within a house. I loved the tension between the rough unfinished quality and the deliberate designy feel of the space. It is as if every part of the building process was re-examined, then re-invented, even the electrical wiring methods.I would hate to be his contractor.

Saw Ian Woo’s drawings for the first time at the Singapore Art Museum’s Panorama – Recent Art from Contemporary Asia show. He presented a series of paintings which combined thick brush strokes with fine, yet deliberate pencil markings. The contrast works very well.

Green Zheng’s Chinese School Lessons Show at Chan Hampe Gallery. He essentialised the May 13 Generation into a few slogans and words (Malaya, bersatu, Where do you live, what is your name) and painted them over the Chung Cheng High School uniform. If you, like me have been immersed in that era for work, to see his interpretation of their experience as an art work found in faux-colonial Raffles Hotel gallery was sweet irony. You can view the works in the catalog here

Charles Lim’s Evil Disappears Show at FuturePerfect. David Teh curated a strand of Charles’ work focusing on the fluidity of borders. I have been following Charles work and have enjoyed his explorations. Do get your hands on the catalog containing David’s essay.

Attended the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum, a day in 1987 where 22 activists were detained for being Marxist Conspirators. Yes, Marxist Conspirators. The organisers were very surprised that several hundred people turned up to commemorate the event. There was an exhibition on the ISA that showed a mock up of a detention cell.

Freedom Film Festival (Singapore edition). I facilitated the Q&A for two films from this Malaysian film festival with the young Malaysian directors in attendance. They were so articulate and passionate that our normally sedate Singapore audience found themselves actually asking many questions. We over-ran and everyone had to be chased out of The Substation auditorium.

Hayward Gallery – the Art of Change: New Directions from China. I had only half a day to myself while in London and torn between the Tate Modern’s newly opened Tanks and this, I went for this. So much of Chinese art is cartoonised or Ai Wei Wei-ised with the aura or dissidence, that nothing else seems to get through. This exhibition seeks to address the dark hole. What I found impressive was the documentation of the exhibtion. The website, only accessible in situ, cross referenced the artists’ work with the events (political as well as cultural) of the day as well as their relationship with each other. Particularly memorable was Xu Zhen’s suspended lady and Sun Yuan & Peng Yus dogs chained to running machines.