Archive for February, 2007

Straits Times, 8th Feb 2007 (Thursday) Pg1-2
TWO years ago film-maker Grace Phan found herself racing full tilt towards a
crowd of demonstrators camped out in front of the Palace of Ashes in Dili.
She had just landed in the East Timor capital to begin shooting a documentary
about President Xanana Gusmao, and was trying to capture him addressing the
She decided she could get it done more easily than her crew of three men. “I
felt I’d be safer than the guys,” she said. When she reached the crowd, it made way for her.
She got the shot she wanted. Intrepid female documentary film-makers like Phan are a growing
breed here.  Their work is winning acclaim from film festivals and drawing increasing
viewership on cable channels.
Phan’s documentary, Where The Sun Rises, won Amnesty International’s award for
Movies That Matter at the Jakarta International Film Festival last year.
Singapore GaGa, by Tan Pin Pin, 37, became the first documentary to get a
theatrical release here last year and was also shown at New York’s Museum Of
Modern Art.
Cinema du Reel, a documentary film festival at the Pompidou Centre in Paris,
has two Singapore documentaries in its line-up this year: Aki Ra’s Boys by Lynn
Lee and James Leong, and Match Made by Mirabelle Ang. Even novice documentarians are
doing well.  Eng Yee Peng’s short documentary Diminishing Memories, about village life in
Lim Chu Kang, won a Best Tertiary Documentary Award at 2005’s Queensland New
Filmmakers Award and has travelled to other renowned festivals.
The list goes on: Innocent, co-directed by Gek Li San and Ho Choon Hiong;
Singapore Standard Time by Joycelyn Khoo, Lo Hwei Shan, Loo Pei Yi and Serene
Ng; Jasmine Ng’s Pink Paddlers, which will have a charity premiere at The Grand
Cathay on March 27.
This is a veritable avalanche compared to 10 years ago. Then, there were no
female documentarians. Now, there are at least 10 working both full-time and
part-time.  Discovery’s vice-president of production and development Vikram Channa said
documentary makers here are evenly split between men and women.
Women directors do concede that they have certain advantages when it comes to
making documentaries.  As Phan found out, a woman appears physically less intimidating than
a man, and that can be an advantage in volatile situations.  Of course there is a flip side,
as Jasmine Ng, 34, pointed out. She recalled filming a Muslim religious festival in Mumbai where
men flagellated themselves.  After a while, she felt that she was intruding despite the men’s polite
accommodation of her presence. She said: “There are some places you just cannot
be.”  Women are also right when it comes to the emotive aspect of documentaries,
which are real stories about real people. 
As Eng said: “Making documentaries, you feel closer to the
subjects and their stories and their hearts. I like the intimacy.”
Ms Mok Choy Lin, supervising producer with National Geographic Channel Asia
which commissions documentaries from local film-makers, said: “We recently
finished one documentary where the female director had to interview terminally
ill patients. To get someone on their deathbed to talk to you, you need an
incredible level of trust.”  Mr Channa noted that personal engagement with the stories often drive
women documentarians.  “What does stand out is that some of the female directors who have come
to us have come with ‘passion projects’, subjects they personally care about deeply,
ideas they have been living with for some time.”  Among them was Pek Siok Lian’s Born Again Buddhists,
about Bhutan’s reincarnated spiritual leaders, which was eighth in the most-watched list of
programmes in Singapore last year.
Director James Leong, 35, said his co-director Lynn Lee, 33, brought a woman’s
sensitivity to Passabe, about an East Timor village struggling to come to terms
with a massacre. At her insistence, they included the story of a woman whose
husband was charged with crimes against humanity.
Leong said: “For me the film was all about violence and revenge. When we came
to this softer side, I was impatient. I didn’t see it.”
Explaining her different perspective, Lee said: “As a woman, you wonder how the
women deal with it, how they bring up children, how they cope. They tend to be
not so vocal.”
This trait of giving voice to the unheard and marginalised, the forgotten and
neglected, is something that recurs in the women’s work.
This phenomenon of female documentarians seems to be a worldwide trend. Look at
the line-up of every major documentary film festival and there is a more even
distribution between male and female directors.
Male documentary film-maker Ng Khee Jin, 44, thinks that the patience required
by the genre also explains why women are good with documentaries.
Aside from the touchy feely stuff, the practical aspects of film-making also
play a part.
Tan said: “To me, it’s all about resources. I want to make films here and now.
The documentary process allows me to do that.”
She shot Singapore GaGa on a shoestring budget of $100,000 over a year, often
operating the camera herself. And she fit the shoot in between other paying
Essay documentaries, like the ones she makes, offer flexibility. “One can shoot
and edit in between other jobs or other family commitments,” she said.
Everyone says it is impossible to make a living from documentaries.
Leong and Lee have sold their documentary to the prestigious Franco-Germany
television network Arte. But that earned them only a couple of thousand euros,
hardly enough to recoup the $200,000 they spent making Passabe.
They received funding support from the Singapore Film Commission and won grants
from the Rockefeller Foundation as well as a sizable post-production award,
US$35,000 (S$54,000), from the prestigious Sundance Institute.
Lee said: “Most of the time, we pay for the privilege of doing documentaries.”
As Eng said: “The payoff is totally non-financial.”