Filmmaker digs up Singapore’s forgotten past

By Wee Sui Lee, 2 July 2007

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Faded footage of people in motor-powered sampans flickers and crackles on the screen. Mangrove swamps fill the landscape. It is Singapore in the 1950s.

These flashbacks from a bygone era are seen in “Invisible City”, a one-hour documentary featuring people in search of Singapore’s past by local filmmaker Tan Pin Pin.

“This film isn’t about Singapore per se — it is about memories, the need to be remembered and what one does to be remembered,” Tan, 38, told Reuters in her studio in Little India.

“I think I made a documentary that mourns the passing of time.”

The film, which premieres in Singapore on July 19, comes at a time when locals are criticizing the government for wiping out the heritage of the city-state, as British colonial villas and 19th-century Chinese shophouses are razed to make room for development.

Indeed, the sense of loss in the pursuit of progress is a common theme in most of Tan’s films.

Many viewers feel that beneath her tender and thoughtful portrayal of Singapore lies a veiled critique of the administration — something she denies.

But one issue that Tan, a law graduate from Britain’s Oxford University, is vocal about is censorship — a problem affecting many filmmakers here.

One of Tan’s films, a three-minute piece called “Lurve Me Now” that explores the fantasies of Barbie dolls, was banned in 1998 by the censors for its sexual references.

In 2005, she represented a group of 10 filmmakers who sought to clarify laws on political films after police questioned the director of a film about an opposition leader.

But Tan said not much has changed since then.

“It’s still as untransparent. It has always been and I think it will continue to be.”

While Singapore has been trying to encourage a homegrown film and media industry, the city-state’s Films Act bars the making and distribution of “party political films” — an offence punishable with a maximum fine of S$100,000 ($65,320) or up to two years in prison.

Melancholic Image

In a brief preview of “Invisible City” shown exclusively to Reuters, a group of young archaeologists discover an abandoned fort at Sentosa, an island where one of two Singapore’s casinos will be located.

In the next scene, Ivan Polunin, the elderly amateur filmmaker who owns the footage — believed to be Singapore’s largest private trove of color footage from the 1950s — struggles to recall what he captured on film.

Tan’s films usually offer viewers a melancholic image of Singapore, vastly different from the government’s picture-perfect version of sanitized streets and sparkling buildings.

“Some people see my films as a window into Singapore. I want to take them to places where they’ve never been to — literally and emotionally,” she said.

Tan’s latest documentary, the critically acclaimed “Singapore GaGa”, featured an elderly busker, a woman in a wheelchair selling packets of tissue paper, and avant-garde Singapore pianist Margaret Tan performing on her trademark toy pianos in a public housing block.

Tan, who had “wanted to leave so badly” when she was younger, said she is staying put as Singapore still inspires her.

“My material is all here, I’m not interested in being a diasporic director. This place resonates for me.”


Related post: Left only with memories