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The Torch: What about quality? – putting the Singapore instant into doubt

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Quality by itself is just a neutral term, neither positive nor negative per se, dependant always on what context it comes in – or out of. We are optimistic people, for sure, trained by experience to hope for the best, however foolish such an exercise in self-delusion may seem to bystanders.

thetorch.jpgSo it is that when speaking of quality, we instantly assume it to mean something rather good, do we not? And rightfully so; there’s a set aim we should never let go of, a dream to pursue and drive us onwards to live up to a challenge against all odds. So much for the heroic struggle that any creative likes to see themselves constantly and irresistibly engaged in, if not all but consumed by; we love to think of ourselves as lone wolves and fighters…

Vanity aside, your mission as a filmmaker is to produce good work and deliver, the same as in any other business or profession everywhere across the globe (and really, there is no need for complaining – I think we’ve settled that one by now). Filmmaking in Singapore, like democracy, is a participatory system. Standing on the sidelines won’t change the picture, so do get yourself involved because things are indeed possible; certainly where the cause of (good) quality in our movies is concerned and at stake, forever anew.

One distinguishing hallmark of a quality that can do the job and serve the branding of a place, city or nation, is the forging of a genuine taste in your products, which sets it apart from the rest and renders it recognizable. In this it is important to be distinct rather than just imitate the already successful. As a rule, you don’t need to give the market another injection of what it has in abundance, but be unique yourself and positively different. For that, long gestation may be necessary in some cases, and it can pay a higher dividend eventually, if you work and progress at your own pace instead of letting outside demand dictate it.

There will come a time for you in Singapore too, when you slow down. It is like with that much cited vintage wine: Good things need their time to develop and ripen into fullness. So it is with art, and film is no different from any other of its many variations. Film, too, has to follow the rules and meet the intrinsic requirements which define all of our irrepressible human processes and character; and these are the driving forces behind anything good in life – or the movies. What screen credibility a picture may eventually possess, it has to originate with those qualities that can by their very nature never be fabricated in just an instant, as any film practitioner will know. They have to let those seminal beginnings have their time and manifest themselves when they will; to this basic, all-encompassing paradigm, there is no true alternative (no master touch can heal the wounds of time itself, I’m afraid). Even as such procedure may not be on that (in)famous official agenda of social engineering – why, you can engineer yourself, can you not? And that may scare some among the upper echelons (and chefs), but rest assured everybody: that Singapore cauldron won’t boil over just so soon.

And haven’t you voiced this same concern yourself before, and eloquently? What was that documentary short film (one of the very first to get reviewed on this site, by the way), what was “Singapore Standard Time” all about? It is really too obvious how anything deep-rooted, anything that is supposed to develop to maturity so that it can flourish accordingly, and the instant derivative thereof, are mutually exclusive. Why shouldn’t this, then, also be true of filmmaking, like it holds true of any other art form? The answer is simple – but not so simple to implement in real terms. Likewise, apparently, this truth takes time to register fully; or at the right places. Thus, where aiming for real quality is concerned, it comes down to a test of will-power, resolve and, finally, character; and that test is yours. You need to take your own time, for it will not be granted.

Lastly, it is the industry shakers, the decision makers, who eventually will have to acknowledge that in art, efficiency is differently defined and has its own set of rules, which are indeed independent from commercial operations. All art has to abide by these, their generic precepts, if something good shall come of it. Accordingly, allocation of time is an essential tool, and quite rational if handled less rigidly. Then you will see – that’s my prediction – that this necessary incubator made of time and money isn’t just some artificial cocoon for the over-sensitive talent to be spared the hardships of reality, but rather works like an organic womb bearing fruit in a timely manner (yes, the clock is ticking – but counter to urban legend, time is never running out).

At this point I want to carry my argument one step further by maintaining that not only does the whole process of making a movie (from research and the earliest stages of pre-production onwards all the way through to its final market or festival release) involves a long time span. But the very same is true, and in some respects even more importantly so, of the filmmaker’s career as such. Maybe it is that I am really too old-fashioned, but when, for instance, a 26-year old director delivers his or her first feature-length film, in all honesty, am I the only one to think this just slightly odd? To me it sounds (and in proven fact has on occasion turned out to be) a bit premature and, with all due respect, unfinished – an opportunity wasted for being too quick. As a film school student, don’t rush yourself. By swallowing more than you can handle at a time you might only get yourself into choking trouble upon the crucial first attempt, or in some truly unlucky cases even cause serious artistic constipation. Remember that you only can do your debut once in your life; so better take all the time you need to get yourself prepared for the big screen launching into the sober(ing) part of the game. This to any rookie director out there audibly champing at the bit…

It is a philosophical question probably worth debating, whether there are second chances (in life or – where else?), and some people doubt it very much while others uphold the possibility. Well, make up your own mind on this, but whatever conclusion you may eventually arrive at: do take your time in thinking things over, please! It is by all accounts not beyond your job description as a filmmaker to scrupulously weigh the options on a matter and think first before shooting (guided by intuition and good luck alone).

But all these observations and the just demands they trigger, they are all part and parcel of that big picture which is still awaiting its glorious completion (if that is ever possible): A stand-alone and healthy film industry in Singapore, and its emergence as a trademark in its own right! To achieve that, it is imperative that we can extricate our creative pool and stock from the demands of the instantaneous and continuous serving of surrogates; this is my main point here.

Money is always stupid, and sometimes it even renders otherwise sensible people into fools (we’ve witnessed this before, sadly); but it doesn’t have to be this way if those who provide the funding make informed and far-sighted choices. Eventually Singapore cinema has to hold its own, locally and internationally. With talented directors stooping to the nether business of commercial cinema, making profitable films doesn’t free them of the need to be profound and in command of their craft. And to arrive there, it will take not just more money, but also, firstly, more (quality) time.

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