Truth, objectivity and the Singapore way
At the Q & A session at last week’s Cine.SG screening of Diminishing Memories and Singapore Standard Time, a member of the audience got up and praised Eng Yee Peng, the director of the former film, for having made a film was “very objective and shows all sides of the story.”
I suppose this was referring to the fact that Yee Peng had interviewed not only her own parents, who were still clearly disgruntled with the government decision to evict them from their kampung home twenty years ago, but also former neighbours and acquaintances, some of whom held a completely opposing view.
She even scored an interview with the former Member of Parliament for the constituency where she used to live, who helpfully provided the predictable dose of politic remarks.
Towards the end of the Q & A session, another audience member asked the makers of both films if they had approached government policymakers for comment on the subject of their films, i.e. Diminishing Memories‘ critique of the government resettlement of kampung-dwellers and Singapore Standard Time‘s critique of the government’s just-add-water-and-stir approach to, well, just about anything. The audience member suggested that having a government voice would “add balance” to these films.
That was the point at which I had to restrain myself from hurling my pen at him (with the hope of scoring a ricochet hit off just about anyone who might be nodding sagely along to the rhythm of “objectivity” and “balance”).
Why do people feel that film (or art in general) has to be objective? Just what is this “objectivity” and “balance” they speak of?
I suspect that a dictionary definition of being objective looms large in their mind, where they imagine that a filmmaker, particularly a documentary filmmaker, is some omniscient and impartial eye — all-seeing, all-knowing, none-judging. An indefatigable gatherer of all the “facts”, who then lays them out on a table for the audience CSI-style, with no personal agenda or foreordained conclusions.
But what is a fact anyway? What is truth? (Don’t worry, that question’s rhetorical, otherwise we could be here for days.) Does having a policymaker say something make it true? Does having one more, or less, perspective make a version of a story any closer to that proverbial truth?
And why this chronic assumption that a film, if it’s going to be any good, should aspire to achieve some Zen-like equilibrium of objectivity? A film, like any creative work, inevitably carries the stamp of its maker; to pretend it were otherwise is disingenuous at best and deceptive at worst. Not to mention the fact that a film that didn’t have a point of view — or didn’t dare to assert one — would have all the character of the void deck of an HDB block (and about as much life to it).
I suspect that the prizing of this mythical objectivity can be traced to a Singapore culture of discourse that has been engineered to generate discomfort if the official or government view is excluded from a discussion. Ours is also a culture that shies away from developing (sound) opinions, being able to argue them cogently and being able to tolerate — let’s not even talk about to accept — points of view that differ from, or even take issue wiith, the dominant or mainstream opinion.
So never mind that the strength of these films lies precisely in the fact that they are not unbiased, impersonal, unemotional narratives — that the filmmakers’ personal and well-argued perspectives are precisely what give life, voice and (as the first audience member acknowledged) heart to these films.
Never mind that the government voice is the dominant voice heard in the Singapore media anyway and hardly needs to be given another mouthpiece.
No, never mind all that. Objectivity good, personal judgement bad — therefore these films need to have a government voice to be “better” films.
To their credit, the makers of both films described how their films held up despite the absence of a government perspective. But they were also somewhat apologetic in their responses, explaining how they had tried to engage the relevant government agencies and been turned down — as if to say, look, we tried to give the government a voice, but the government didn’t want it.
To which I say: you don’t have to apologise for anything. As the creator of the film, you have the right to decide which voices should be included in order to make the film you want to make — and you’re under no obligation to include the government voice unless it suits your purposes.
Because a film is, ultimately, what its maker wants it to be. Compromise that vision, that voice — and you might as well retire and write encyclopaedia for a living (and let’s not pretend those don’t have their own agenda either).