The space she lives in

DOK Leipzig: The Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin is holding a masterclass as part of her extended homage at this year's Dok Leipzig festival.
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: October 27, 2019
Tan Pin Pin-Dok Leipzig-interview-featured

As Tan Pin Pin tells Modern Times Review, she tries to give the audience a sense of someone who is always sensing their surroundings. As someone who has spent practically her whole career making films about the space she lives in, Tan identifies the difficulties, pleasures, and questions one has when making films on one’s own country.

What does the art of making a documentary film mean to you?

The art of making a documentary film is the art of making film, period. I don’t really see documentary as a separate category of cinema. For me, it usually starts with an idea or a moment, even a certain smell or a feeling. And by listening and observing, that moment or idea can be fleshed out into a work that moves with time and space.

Do you start making a film with a purpose in mind?

I usually start with a question. I rarely take on projects that doesn’t pique my interest. The first question for me is – is this something I want to find out more about? Learn more? For example, making a documentary about John Woo for Discovery Channel was for me an opportunity to learn everything about John Woo and to watch all his films. I’m not an action movie fan, but I was very interested in his work so I decided to take on that project so that I could learn more about him. Similarly, for Singapore GaGa – there were many personalities that I wanted to meet like my favorite ventriloquist, so I used the documentary as an opportunity to meet them and learn about their work.

How do you generally find the people for your films?

I find out about them from the newspaper or from a book, sometimes even from Facebook. For example, a few of the interviewees featured in From Singapore with Love – I had read about in a book that consisted of first-person accounts by Singapore political exiles. And then I thought it would be interesting to meet them to find out about their experiences living abroad and what it’s like to not be able to come back to Singapore.

«It is very hard to get a permit to have a political protest because they say it disrupts business.»

What about your masterclass at Dok Leipzig – what’s going to happen there?

I will try to give the audience a sense of someone who is always sensing her surroundings, who has spent practically her whole career making films about the space she lives in, the difficulties, the pleasures and also the questions one has when making films about one’s own country. I want to give the participants a sense of why those questions are important and what you have to do to pursue those questions.

What is Singapore like in your eyes?

Singapore is a space with a lot of history, yet so much of what used to embody this history is not there anymore. Most places preserve old buildings and archives. In Singapore, we consider a 40-year-old building really old and we tear it down. For many, identity is linked to buildings or space, and they are both in such short supply in Singapore because of the high turnover. So without the usual markers, it makes me question what this country is about. It is obviously a thriving city but what does one feel and what one remembers when living here their entire life?

Why do you think there is such a lack of awareness of the limitations of freedom in Singapore?

On a spectrum of freedom, I think on one end you would have North Korea and at the opposite end, you would have to say Sweden. Singapore would fall somewhere in between. News cycles focus on the extremes and not the middle. And because we are known as a financial and business hub, the news is mainly business-related.

People in Singapore know that there are restrictions. For example, Chinese dialects are banned from theaters so to encourage people to speak Mandarin. It is very hard to get a permit to have a political protest because they say it disrupts business. But we also have a passport which allows us to travel to the highest number of countries without a visa. So it is extremely contradictory.

What are the films that influenced you most?

Parfumed Nightmare (1978) had a powerful impact on me. It is a low budget film about what it felt like to be colonized. It is humorous and at the same time, it is extremely sharp and trenchant. For me, that epitomizes what film can be and can do – asking the right questions, and being extremely creative and expressive while doing so.

A second film would be City of Sadness (1989). It had just won in Venice when I watched it – but for me, it wasn’t the winning aspect of it that blew me away, it was the fact that I heard my own Chinese dialect, the Fujian dialect, on the cinema screen for the first time. In Singapore, that dialect is banned from the screen. Moreover, that was the first time I watched a film that was so different from all the other Hollywood and Hong Kong films that I was brought up with. There was something so naturalistic about it that I had a visceral reaction.

One of the exiles from To Singapore, with Love says something along the line of – supporting the ones who make a stand could be just as expensive as making a stand. Was there a price you had to pay?

Actually, making To Singapore, with Love was possibly the best thing that happened to me because for it I had to decide what I stood for as a Singapore filmmaker who has spent many years making films about Singapore. By showing it, there was a chance that I would never be able to apply for a Singapore film grant again, for instance, amongst other «punishments». I decided that was a risk I was willing to take at that point in my career if I couldn’t show something I believed in, what then was the point in being a filmmaker here? And from then on, I felt free from all kinds of considerations and constraints, because I knew it didn’t matter so much anymore, because the film I felt it was so important to make, was made and shown, not in Singapore because it was banned, but everywhere else.

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