A Conversation with Tan Pin Pin

Published: 3rd November 2018

Interviewed by Julia Tan and Yuka Kamamoto

Perspectives sat down to chat with highly acclaimed homegrown documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin.
Her most recent work In Time to Come (2017) has travelled to the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, and the É Tudo Verdade International Documentary Film Festival. She is best known for her works Singapore Gaga (2005), and the controversial To Singapore, with Love (2013), which is locally banned.

In this interview, we touched on various topics ranging from Tan’s work and her approach to documentary filmmaking, to the issue of a lack of diversity in the film industry. Particularly illuminating is her point on how the lack of female filmmakers is an intersectional issue involving overlapping dimensions of not just gender, but also of class and race. Our conversation went beyond the institution of film, with Tan shrewdly pointing out that issues of diversity, censorship, etc. not only affect the arts, but also other fields of innovation such as science and entrepreneurship. When Tan is not filming, she is an avid reader and hopes to travel Southeast Asia.

Perspectives Film Festival: Your films reveal a unique and powerful perspective of Singapore and of its people that is rarely found in other local films. You feature interesting characters, people on the fringes of society, political exiles, etc. in a way that does not feel intrusive but very humanistic and organic. How do usually prepare for each project? What inspires your work? Do you people watch often?

Tan Pin Pin: It’s very hard for me to talk about my inspiration because I do not particularly seek something out. More often than not, I just go where my interests lie, and then from there the people present themselves to me. For example, Singapore Gaga (2005) initially started out with wanting to make a CD of sounds of Singapore that I felt were not recognised or not covered by the usual jingles that we have in the mainstream. I wanted to have a CD of how the sugarcane machine sounds, or how the MRT reader reads the announcements, or to have a recording of the ventriloquist entertaining lots of children – and I was one of the beneficiaries of those performances. So for me, it is a very personal journey through my community and my country. Starting from that filter, which is my own personal taste and preferences, I meet people whom I find interesting. Part of the reasons why the interviews or meetings seem quite natural is very likely because the interaction is mutual and I am genuinely interested in what people have to tell me. So it’s not from a top-down perspective. It’s mainly more from a perspective of someone who wants to meet someone because one is curious.

PFF: Do you meet any people who are not immediately on board with being interviewed and how do you get them to open up to you?

TPP: It depends on whom I’m approaching. For example, for Singapore Gaga a lot of people that I approached were sometimes just people I’ve met off the streets, buskers and all that. But for something like To Singapore, with Love (2013), it would be people that I knew about from reading their writing, and I approach them in different ways. For example, for some of the political exiles in that film, I wrote them an email and enclosed links of the films that I’ve done before as a way of introduction. That helps them to get a sense of where I am coming from as someone who is interested in their story.

PFF: So you have done mostly documentary films and one fictional film Pineapple Town for 7 Letters (2015). What attracts you to the documentary filmmaking medium more than fictional filmmaking?

TPP: For most people they have a story they want to tell and then they use the film apparatus to tell the story. They assemble a crew, write a script, and cast actors to tell the story. I have never come from that point of view. For me, the camera is a means to understand questions that I have. For example, in Invisible City (2007), I wanted to meet people who were documentarists themselves as well. So I got to chat with the archaeologists who were trying to dig up Mount Serapong in Sentosa to find out more about Sentosa. I got to meet a Japanese reporter who wanted to interview some of the survivors of the Japanese occupation, even though it was a very difficult interview for her. I also interviewed Dr. Ivan Polunin about his early impetus for taking so much footage of Singapore. So these are people who basically went out of their way to find out more about Singapore. I wanted to find out more about the documentary impulse and using the camera was a good excuse to do that. You could say that the film is actually secondary. Normally people write a proposal, and that’s a fundraising gesture. I don’t start off saying “Oh, I want to tell this story about ABC.” Case in point, To Singapore, with Love was an accidental film as well. It started off wanting to be a series of images about what Singapore looks like from the outside. In the course of researching for that, I came across the book Escape from Lion’s Paw which was a book of first-person accounts of Singapore political exiles. As part of due diligence, I sort of decided to speak with a few of them, and when I did that, it totally became the film itself. I have topics I am curious about, but I don’t have a film I want to make per se. It is more like a reason to find out more.

PFF: I guess that is why your films are so organic. It does not feel like you already have a thoroughly planned out idea. It feels like as we’re watching the film, we’re also figuring out—

TPP: That’s why when people watch my films, they’re going along with me as we are slowly excavating. It does not have that epic quality of some fiction films like, “This is the story I want to tell and here it is.” This one feels a little bit more like a journey.

PFF: Do you think that the documentary medium is more truthful than fictional films at societal issues?

TPP: Not necessarily so, because all the films are edited. Once you edit you actually have a point of view. Once you have a point of view then the film is that point of view of a particular issue, which is not necessarily true or untrue. It is just a point of view, unless it is a straight four-hour recording of an incident or something like that. Even then the vantage point is critical.

PFF: Why do you think there are so few female filmmakers in Singapore (and internationally)? Is there something about this profession or career that discourages women from pursuing it?

TPP: There is a huge deficit and it might be historical. The power imbalances are historical. Women only got equal pay in the mid-70s for the same job? So you could say that there are very systemic reasons why we lag behind across the board. It is not just in the film industry, but also in the field of architecture, engineering, etc. where there has been a huge imbalance. It is improving but still it is very slow. Also it is an issue of class as well, not just of gender. When you are making films you do not have a regular salary, and you need to be able to support yourself in the interim periods. All these very different factors that are at play—class, gender, maybe even race—are all imbalances all over. The issue is to remind ourselves that it is not just one question. It is actually intersectional. The question then becomes, “Is it important to have balance?” Some people do not feel that it is important, for various reasons, and if it is important then what can be done to improve the statistics?

PFF: Some people might be concerned about the imbalance because they think that maybe women have a different way of looking at the world. Do you think that your experiences as a woman or as a female filmmaker influence the way you make films?

TPP: Hard to say because I have never been a man before, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. But I do want to add one point to what I had spoken about before, which is that power is concentrated in a few people in a few companies. It is concentrated vertically as well. There is control over the distribution, the exhibition of different works, as well as the funding of different works. It is not just on the level of women filmmakers. Do we have woman distributors? Do we have Malay film distributors? Do we have different funders of different stripes as well? That’s also important.

Anyway, going back to whether there is a woman’s point of view— What is interesting for me is that when I go for documentary film festivals, there are many more female documentary filmmakers than there are male filmmakers. You can go through the roster of feature films in Hot Docs Film Festival. Maybe not this year because now they have made an effort to make sure that their programming is fifty-fifty, but three years before this quota kicked in. Comparing it with fiction filmmakers, you will find that there are probably more directors who are female (or minority) in the documentary field than there are in the fiction field. It is hard to say why specifically – there are a variety of reasons. One primary reason could be that we are able to work with less resources to pull off a film. We do not need to have a crew of fifty people. Very few people own the funding or capital to pay everyone to be on set at the same time for four weeks on end. We are probably able to pull less capital together but are still able to make stuff. Because the projects take a longer time as well, we are able to amortise it over several years rather than have it all done over four weeks, for instance. So that has an effect on the stories. The stories we tell are slightly different but that might have to do with the way production is more flexible around works that are less concentrated in terms of time and capital.

PFF: As a female director, do you face any challenges or advantages during interviews, funding, production?

TPP: I do not want to go into that because it would just latch onto stereotypes. I do feel that there is one area that we might be less good at, which is that some camera equipment is really heavy. There are ways around it, and there are certain cameras that are very light but has good resolution. I needed to go for weight classes to bulk up so that I could carry the equipment I needed to carry. So there are ways around it.

PFF: Do you prefer to do the camerawork on your own or have someone else do it?

TPP: It depends on the budget. For that film there was no budget. But if I had the budget, of course, I prefer someone else to shoot it. There is another pair of eyes to check for the quality, so that I can focus on the questions and all that kind of stuff.

PFF: Why do you think there are so few film auteurs in Singapore? Do you think that censorship or the way that films are being funded in Singapore waters down local films? Do they discourage a more powerful voice or more unique perspective that maybe filmmakers do have but cannot express because they censor themselves?

TPP: Censorship has repercussions across the population in all sorts of ways. For example, at the level of entrepreneurship, scientific discoveries, the number of dot-coms you have. Why haven’t we got a Facebook for instance? “Why are there so few film auteurs,” is but a tiny sliver of the whole question about if Singapore was less prescriptive, will Singapore be more like America or UK or any of these countries? Maybe the closest example would be whether we will be more like Hong Kong, or maybe even Taiwan? These are considered far more liberal than Singapore. I feel that it would make a difference in the stories that we tell.

PFF: Are there any topics or themes that you really want to tackle but were discouraged because of censorship?

TPP: Well, having done To Singapore, with Love, everything else is considered easy already.

PFF: Any future projects that you think about doing but then may be a bit concerned because of funding or—?

TPP: I am not concerned now. Meanwhile, I am executive producing a film about Singapore education system called Unteachable. So that is coming up next year and I am quite excited about it.

PFF: In the recent years, local films have been travelling to international festivals a lot, like Ilo Ilo (2013), A Yellow Bird (2016), Pop Aye (2017), A Land Imagined (2018). Do you think this is a sign of progress for the local film industry? How do you think the local film industry has grown in the recent ten years?

TPP: We have had a very good run in the past five years with a slate of these award-winning or high profile films. Kudos to the group of film directors whom I would consider all of us ‘crazy people’. You see, it took so many years for each of them to get their films off the ground. Everything else is basically suspended until that film gets made. I just hope we never run out of this kind of talented crazy people in all fields, not just in film. I know this is a film festival, and the focus is on film but there are so many other areas as well that get our inspiration from the same source, which is something we want to create, or something we want to say, and then finding different ways to say it. For every successful film there are like maybe ten unsuccessful films, which have been made with just as much blood, sweat and tears.

PFF: Since your very first film, have there been any changes in the way that local or international audiences responded to your films?

TPP: What is interesting is that I have actually made four feature films, including the latest In Time to Come. I never imagined that since Singapore Gaga, which was the first until now, there would be four films, and the four films are quite different as well. I am just glad that I have been able to make these films because it is not easy to find funding to make them, and also not easy to find audiences because they are not fiction films. Somehow just by sheer doggedness— I did talk about crazy people who managed to get them made and seen. The important thing is now that I have a body of work, I look back and think, “Oh, OK I do have something to say.” When you are making films you are just trying to get to the next scene, the next interview. You rarely have a chance to think about, as a body of work, what it is you want to say, or what it is you want to show.

PFF: What are the differences between the way local audiences and international audiences respond to your work?

TPP: The non-Singaporean audiences use my films as a way to understand Singapore, as a window into Singapore. People who do not always believe the tourism propaganda look to films or books to find out more about the country. So these films now become something that people who want to find out more about Singapore can refer to. I am going to be on a tour in the U.S. this month, travelling to several campuses showing my films. I am going to be an artist-in-residence in Colgate University as well. For me, it will be interesting for me to get a response from the audiences who are very far removed from Singapore.

PFF: Especially after they have watched Crazy Rich Asians (2018)?

TPP: Yeah, especially after they have watched Crazy Rich Asians, which is such a boost for the Tourism Board, watching my films would help them get a sense of another Singapore. Some people do not care but for those who do, they always use films, art, and museums as a way to get a foothold into another culture, another country. All our films play a part in this.

PFF: What about for local audiences? Even for Singaporeans, watching your films is like seeing another side of Singapore. What are some of the responses that you hear, which you found very interesting?

TPP: Is there any particular film you refer to?

PFF: Singapore Gaga or Invisible City?

TPP: I mean that is why I make those films, because it is my way of showing, “Hey look, this is also your community, your country.” We are so much more than what we make ourselves to be. The land that we are standing on has so many undercurrents and we need to be aware of them.

PFF: You have been documenting a lot about Singapore and your surroundings. If you were to document your own life, what story would you tell?

TPP: I unfortunately think my life is really uninteresting. Because all I want to do is camp out in a library and read books if I did not have to do anything else.

PFF: What kind of books?

TPP: Oh, any kind of books. It depends on the topic of choice. Right now I am reading about fermentation. I will just borrow the whole shelf of books relating to that particular topic that I am interested in. So my favourite pastime is to park myself in either bookshops or libraries and just basically not be disturbed.

I would like to travel in Southeast Asia and maybe find prime stories within Southeast Asia from a Singaporean perspective. I would like to check out Borneo, Kalimantan, and maybe even travel across Malaysia, southern Thailand. Did fermentation throw you off?

PFF: No, it was very interesting! [laughs] Among all your works, which is your favourite?

TPP: It will always have to be my first one, Moving House (1995), because it was made under such difficult circumstances. When I shot that I didn’t have any background in film. I was a photographer at that time so I had to seek help from many people to make that film.

PFF: That’s it! Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview!

TPP: Not at all!