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The Torch: The story is your mentor

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What defines originality in a film? This question is often hardly contested when comparing a particular movie with the plethora of possible or alleged blueprints, scrupulously registered items on any critic’s evaluation chart. Likewise any filmmaker knows that uncomfortable, queasy feeling lurking behind their latest idea that the very thing has been done before, somewhere by someone for sure.

The TorchWe all have come to a hard won understanding of how such lines of thinking can lead us precisely nowhere but to the dead end of creativity itself. Most have learnt how to avoid falling into this kind of self-implemented trap. Nevertheless it is quite odd that not only should the same themes be addressed the world over repeatedly but that we encounter in these many interpretations similarities too numerous and striking to be entirely random, while at the same time we know them to be convincingly unrelated.

This phenomenon is neither new nor limited to the realm of film. Maybe it isn’t telling us much more than the simple truth that all men essentially live their own incorporation of that larger life we share the common basis of.

It is with practicality however, not philosophy, that I concern myself here and a handy lesson can surely be extracted from this observation. This much, then, we have to honestly admit to ourselves, that every story of true human concern has already been told. Just remember the classics, the great, all encompassing epics, backbone of every single culture, be it the Edda or the Journey to the West, the Iliad or the Tale of the Heike. They are all part of that one, timeless song about being alive and struggling, which has incessantly been sung in many voices the world over, but always aspires to evoke only one and the same harmony whenever, wherever. The instruments may vary and change over time, the orchestra constantly is in need of being reshuffled, and for obvious reasons. But in respect and awareness of these roots, the variation you have to contribute through your own individuality cannot fail to grow into a full and representative form of life’s various manifestations.

I prefer simplicity over obscurity which comes too often with over-refinement in many an ambitious production. When it’s telling, when it’s ground-level real, credible and profound, then in its simplicity it is a good movie. Counter to the prevailing disbelief that people outside Singapore might really find anything worthwhile in the goings-on of that little red dot at the equator, I’d like to assure anyone who listens that yes, you may be special, alright – but believe me, life in your country isn’t entirely enigmatic and an inscrutable riddle to the outsider. Putting irrationality aside, the intrinsic logic of the story you’re telling will almost certainly ensure plausibility for your audience if you abstain from squeezing in something that’s alien to its natural course. This, I am aware, is one risk typically encountered in co-productions where money liabilities toward the co-producing country’s party often force an original concept to be adapted in such a way as to suit bi-national demands for consumption. But it’s a tricky affair because you might easily end up with some hybrid that leaves everybody unhappy.

To reshape and twist and rearrange your initial idea, to convulsively try help your story along and endlessly enhance your first and most immediate grasp on what it is about, makes just as much good sense as walking a horse, really. Isn’t it rather that by following through on a story on its own terms you happen to unfold something bigger than your own fancy, something larger, and transcend your limitations? Let yourself be guided by all that which Lethe* couldn’t erase, precious remnants of an inner light and Mnemosyne’s# blessings, or just subconscious mind patterns, whatever you want to call it. It actually works, actively.

In case you’re thinking about putting pen to paper and seriously getting started on your dream project of making a film, do yourself a favour when next talking the thing over with your producer or the moneybags concerned and stay true to your primary idea, the first momentum and its inherent driving force which set you going and captured your imagination from the start. Citing a great man by his own words, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nature will express itself”! I believe in this; and experience tells me that it only takes confidence to abide by this rule.

Clearly marketing issues do play a role in putting together a concept that stands a chance of ever seeing the light of day – and a projector. Matters to do with box office success need to be taken into account, but to me independent cinema’s best and most promising road to outgrowing its inherent limitations would be if first and foremost it invested in an aspiring story.

We all need to be touched or even shattered by art, that’s what we call having an experience if it comes to that. The same holds true with film, where we know for a fact we’ve gotten more than just our money’s worth, when on leaving the theater we find ourselves slightly shaken, possibly even different from who we were before the lights went down. And truly, this can be achieved even without the guest appearance of some giant ape or superhero on the screen. It simply isn’t true that without a huge and very expensive explosion no action will catch fire with an audience. So we agree, I hope, that indeed low budget doesn’t have to mean low drama as a rule, and that any film’s real strength has to consist of the theme(s) it plays upon. In addition to this, here is my personal litmus test: any story that cannot be concluded by a single ending is a failed one.

Soaring ideals may at times crash, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from aiming for their lofty goal. Remember that ball-game in “Lagaan”, cricket it was? It’s always the underdogs and perceived eccentrics picking up on a challenge, doing the crazy thing and thus, eventually, taking the lead for the rest to follow. In the competition we’re speaking of, your story could turn out to be your most reliable mentor.

* Lethe is a river in Hades. Drinking Lethe’s waters caused one to forget completely. In Greek mythology souls had to drink from Lethe before reincarnation so that they would forget their past lives.

# A goddess in Greek mythology who personified memory.

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