Movie mania has hit local shores as the 29th edition of The Singapore International Film Festival comes around yet again. We meet the power players of Singapore’s film industry who are shaping, molding and steering the visual language of cinema with their behind-the-scenes bravado:
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Pairing nuanced observations about everyday life with Singapore as her backdrop and Singaporeans as her protagonists, Tan Pin Pin’s documentaries leave their viewers with thoughtful reflections on the country they love.
It’s surprising then to learn that the acclaimed director originally chose another medium to tell her stories.
“I got my start as a stills photographer but I kept wanting them to move; I wanted them to speak because they were too silent for me. So, when portable film cameras became available I just jumped feet-first into the world of filmmaking,” she reveals.
“Making documentaries then just became a continuation of my stint as a photojournalist. They’re both visual story-telling, they’ve both got sequences and you have to edit groups of scenes together, so they’re actually very similar.”
Pin Pin’s body of work since then has been nothing short of extraordinary. Her filmography includes documentaries like Singapore Gaga and Invisible City, alongside short film ‘Pineapple Town’, which was part of the 7 Letters anthology. Her most memorable work, however, is also one of her most controversial.
“When To Singapore, With Love was banned in Singapore, I was surprised at how negative the reaction was to the film even though I imagined that it would have some effect amongst the powers that be,” says the award-winning auteur.
“I was very gratified when a group of about 400 Singaporeans made their way to Johor Bahru just so they could catch a screening of it but it was also very tragic for me that the film remains unable to be seen”.
The scene has improved vastly since, thanks in part to initiatives like the Singapore International Film Festival and spaces like The Projector, which Pin Pin says piqued her interest in the world of films beyond what Hollywood and Hong Kong had to offer.
“It creates a chance for people to be immersed in stories and cultures beyond themselves, so it’s a sign that film community here has gained a momentum that I hope continues,” says Pin Pin, who was also inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year, making her eligible to vote in the Oscars.
Feel-good Film: “Perfumed Nightmare by Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik. The film was made in 1977 and it stood out because it talked about what it was like to be a colonial subject, and not just a colonial subject; but a colonial subject in the tropics, and a colonial subject in the tropics in Southeast Asia, and the ironies upon ironies of that.”
While filmmakers bring life, culture and art to our daily lives, it is film festivals that help spread these stories to audiences around the world. Enter Nicole Ong, the newly minted Marketing & Partnerships Director for the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), who oversees the propagation of high-quality creative films to the masses.
“There are all these filmmakers in the industry but they’re only as good as it gets right? You need to be able to actually spread the good word about these filmmakers and their personal stories so that’s where I come in. I make sure that the festival gets heard,” says Nicole.
“It’s also my role to look at how we are able to change perceptions about SGIFF. A lot of people tend to think that the films being shown here are very inaccessible, very indie, a little bit niche, but one of our objectives this year is to get people who are not very into film to just come and be open to what we’ll show at the festival and come and see the diversity of the talents that we have in the region.”
In Nicole, the festival has found a fresh pair of eyes to take the SGIFF in a new direction, as she came from a different industry altogether: Advertising, where she spent more than a decade in brand management.
“After 13 years old working with clients and all that, I needed a break just to reset. So, I did some freelancing and concentrated on photography work for a while before meeting with SGIFF. I was very honest about myself being very new to the film industry and so I didn’t know a lot,” reveals Nicole, who joined SGIFF in March.
“It really was different from what I was used to. In advertising I was used to big budgets so coming from that into this non-profit organisation where people are here because of their passionate love for films, that really touched me. They really just want to nurture filmmakers and the filmmaking industry in Singapore. The whole team is very small and it’s very tight-knit and it’s just very real.”
Feel-good film: “I really like the Before Sunrise and Before Sunset series because not only is the storyline beautiful but they also took nine years to film the sequel and they have these really long, uncut shots so the whole series really feels like a passage of time. There’s also Reality Bites, which isn’t entirely my favourite film but it was relevant to me during my pivotal years growing up.”
The Kallang-born producer was the name on everyone’s lips after picking up an award at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in February for her 12-minute stop-motion short film Poles Apart – and she’s gone from strength to strength since returning to her native soil.
“When Poles Apart won at the BAFTAs, I was speechless. I couldn’t believe it because I was in shock. I had worked on it as a graduation project and had a hand in the script’s direction and its editing process as well as handling the budgeting and film’s schedule over a period of 15 months,” says Ser En, who has a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Nanyang Technological University.
“We were inspired by a newspaper article about climate change and how it affected polar bears in the north and grizzly bears in the south so we decided to take that and turn it into a love story about these bears meeting as a result of their natural habitats being eroded.”
Since then, Ser En has worked on horror flick Zombiepura as an associate producer for mm2 Entertainment. The film made its debut in October to favourable reviews. So, what exactly does a producer do?
“As a film producer I oversee everything from script development to the shoot itself to post-production and editing to marketing. We often have a role in the creative process and the business aspect of a films and we juggle multiple films at one go,” Ser En explains, adding that her career choice did receive some pushback from her parents.
“When I won the BAFTA, I told my mum and she said ‘Did you really win? I didn’t see you on TV’, which gave me a good laugh. Deep down I think they are secretly proud of me but it was tough for them to accept my job because sometimes there are no monetary rewards to show for it.
I was alright pursuing film producing and spending all my time on set because of my passion but for my parents, they felt that I could have chosen an easier path to success.”
Feel-good Film: “Gattaca, which is an odd choice but whenever someone asks me what movie I would make if I had $100 million, I always say Gattaca. It’s a sci-fi movie but it has a very human story behind it and it acts as a metaphor for society by looking at what will happen to the human condition if we take the sciences too seriously.”
When a film wins ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars, the award is often handed to the producers. Not the director, not the on-screen stars…the producer. That’s testament to how powerful production is to a film’s success. But what does a film producer do anyway?
“For movies, the executive producer is the person that brings in the money. I don’t technically do that at Chuan Pictures, I do that more for our television commercials, but it’s mostly the same thing because I still have to watch the budget and make sure we don’t go over,” says Karen Khoo-Toohey.
Budgeting concerns aren’t the only thing on Karen’s plate. Producers are often in charge of tasks like choosing the cast, negotiating film rights, driving the marketing, being the occasional naysayer and the film’s biggest cheerleader all at the same time. This means Karen’s day often starts in the wee hours of the morning and doesn’t end until well past midnight.
“If you want to enter the film industry, you have to work you butt off, and be prepared to put in a lot of hard work, and a lot of heart into what you do. I think without the heart, you can never produce anything great. When it comes to filmmaking in Singapore, the heart comes first, followed very closely by the hard work,” Karen explains.
Karen adds that being a woman has allowed her to add on to the filmmaking process, in ways that a man simply couldn’t.
“Women are essential to the filmmaking process because we bring a different light to the emotions and creativity on set, we bring a different perspective to how things are viewed; men can suffer from tunnel vision sometimes, so it’s always good to have a woman involved in all aspect of a film just because their input can allow people to think outside the box and try different things,” says the mother-of-one.
“The thing about working for [director] Royston Tan is that he allows us to do things out of love. We don’t just think ‘Oh, let’s just make lots of money’, we try to actually take on projects that are good for the soul. This year for example, we completed two short films for MINDS (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore) and the happiness we felt from doing that is something that money can’t buy.”
Feel-good film: “Amélie. The entire film is me – a bit crazy, a bit strange, a bit whimsical, a lot quirky and colourful. So I really relate to the film because the storyline is romantic but still a little weird and strange, which is very me!”
A version of this story appeared in the November 2018 issue of The Singapore Women’s Weekly.
Art Direction: Ivy Choong
Styling: Debby Kwong
Hair: Benjamin Wong using Percy and Reed
Makeup: Audrey Wee using Tarte
Location: The Projector