Mind the Cobras! Article about NYU Tisch Asia, Singapore

An article written by a lecturer Jennifer Ruff who currently teaches at NYU Tisch Asia’s Graduate Film School in Singapore. It gives you an idea of how Tisch Asia is selling itself to aspiring American filmmakers. For Ruff, although Singapore is “boring”, this teaching gig is great because its like a super “surreal” sweaty vacay where you have jungles and cobras! Plus students get to film something different like fishing villages in Indonesia and street kids in Delhi, just like in Slumdog.

Published in Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2009 issue, reproduced in whole.

Mind the Cobras by Jennifer Ruff

Turing up Coco Rosie loud enough to block out the mall din of Singapore, I walk up a thick jungle road suppressing the urge to swing from giant vines. I am climbing up the hill to teach my morning editing class at Tisch’s new NYU Graduate Film School in Singapore.

Its hot here. Its 85 miles north of the equator so its always seems like the same season: summer. Which would be great (though hot) for filming if it wasn’t for that sneaky other season: monsoon. But monsoon season is kind of amazing, especially if your script calls for rain. It comes down sudden and hard over the palm trees and it seems to bruise the whole sky. Thy say more people die by lightning in Singapore than anywhere else in the world.

As I near the school (”the big blue whale”. As the students coined it), my eyes automatically scan the ground around the bamboo patch. Since opening in the fall of 2007, a few black cobras have been caught slinking around there in their shiny hoods. I love and hate that they share our campus. They sparked the conversation, “What would you do if you only had six hours (how long it takes to die from a cobra bite) to live?” Of course, more than a few students said they would grab a camera and film it.

Besides lightning and black cobras, there are a few other ways to die in Singapore. A way too young policeman pointed them out during a Powerpoint demonstration at NYU during orientation. Students and professors alike stared at the screen with wide eyes as he pointed to all the various drug offences punishable by death with his red laser pen. They still hang people here and they cane people here too. Yes cane – with a big bamboo stick.

So what the hell are we doing here?

Pioneering? Adventuring? Teaching? Learning? Filming? Dying of boredom? Sweating?

Yes despite the heat, the rain, the laws the lightning, the lack of a film scene, and the abundance of cobras, I can honestly say that it’s an amazing experience to be part of a film school in Singapore. Its good for creativity to get outside your comfort zone; to shake things up and tune your eyes to a totally different frequency. To climb around in a jungle with a camera and a bounce board and figure out how best to like the mangoes on that tree. One of the most refreshing thing for me as a teacher is seeing locations, faces and situations that haven’t been seen already in a thousand student films. This semester one student shot in a very small fishing village in Indonesia using all local non-actors. Another just got back from Delhi, shooting a narrative using real street kids. Another will be shooting in Manila in a few weeks. Singapore itself can be a lot of different things: Florida meets China meets L.A. meets Malaysia with a skyline that could be Toronto or Chicago. Not to mention the best location around: the jungle.

It takes a certain kind of student to ask, “Why not go to film school in Southeast Asia?” Someone who is at heart a pioneer a with a bit of a wild side, someone who is not afraid to move to somewhere they have barely heard of to make films They are free spirits. They are brave. And they manage to thrive on being alienated and out of their element. All qualities I think, that can make for great films and great filmmakers.

Essentially, its like being on location all year. Our eccentric cast and crew of students and professors are stuck together on a small southern tip of Malaysia forging films out of marble malls and palm trees and getting to know each other way too well. They majority of the students still come from the States, with the Asian countries in a close second. We also have two students from Africa who studied at Maishar in Uganda, the NGO film lab started by Mira Nair, and a few others from Europe, South America and Australia.

To be frank, Singapore itself is boring. There is not a lot to do except make films. Which is kind of great. In New York City, there are a million amazing distractions, but I’ve noticed that students here spend much more time in the editing lab; there just isn’t as much to tempt them. It’s great to have all the influences New York offers, but its also great to have nothing more interesting than your own film to bury yourself in.

Any when you do need a little more excitement, Singapore is smack in the centre of Southeast Asia. With less money than you’ll spend in a New York weekend and less time than it takes to fly to Montauk, you can be in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia. And in the time it takes to drive to Boston, you can be in China, India, Taiwan or Burma. The most exciting thing to me is that the students and faculty not only get to travel to these places, but they get to film in them as well.

These surrounding regions have interesting film scenes of their own that outpace Singapore’s in international recognition. Other than Eric Khoo, whose film My Magic received a passionate standing ovation as the first Singaporean film to be in competition in Cannes this year, most cineastes probably can’t name another Singapore director. A few years ago, though, the government here began to realise that people need local culture, and it has been aggressively devoting resources to the arts, with one initiative being the importing of good universities. It may take a while to build a film scene, but if the film output of Thailand, China, Vietnam and the Philippines is any indication, there is a lot of potential.

Understanding that the students need the influence of Western filmmakers as well, Tisch Aisa has brought in some great directors to conduct workshops and Master classes. Last semester, Todd Solondz dedicated a lot of time to the students, workshopping their new scripts with them and evaluating the films they had just cut. Joshua Maston gave great workshops on working with non-actors while also helping the students with their scripts. Not to mention, Oliver Stone is now the school’s Artistic Director, and he plans on coming out a few times a year to hold Master classes, He was just out for a week and gave lectures on screenwriting, directing and the industry. And, making Thanksgiving in the tropics even more surreal, he had Thanksgiving dinner with everyone, which is something I can’t imagine happening in New York.

Singapore is surreal and while it may initially seem an odd spot for a film school, as the school continues to grow and expand into the region, I understand it more and more, So even though I can’t go to the Film Forum or see Synecdoche, New York as it hasn’t been released here yet, or even smoke a joint, I can have an experience that just might alter me and my films forever.