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Q&A with Sherman Ong

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Part of the Singapore Biennale, Banjir Kemarau is a unique film by Sherman Ong (best known for his film Hashi from SIFF 08′) presented in two chapters: Drought and Flood. Catch the Q&A with the filmmaker specially conducted by fellow filmmaker Loo Zihan below!

sherman.jpgLoo Zihan (ZH): How did the concept for the piece come about?

Sherman Ong (SO): It was my response to the theme ‘Wonder’ – What if Singapore has no running tap water? Actually this water situation has been in my head for sometime given that Singapore currently buys water from Malaysia.

For me these two countries are close to me, and also for a larger percentage of the Singapore population, as Malaysia is my birth country and Singapore is where I live. There are always ties – familial, historical, social, economic and political – between the two countries that we cannot ignore, no matter how complicated they may get.

The history of modern Singapore doesn’t start in 1965. To understand Singapore better, I think we would have to look at her relationships with her neighbours.

When the curators told me to create a new work in response to the theme, I was interested to look at the weak point of Singapore. Everybody and everything have their Achilles heels. I feel that the Achilles heel of island states like Singapore is water/natural resources. Not only for Singapore but all the other island states in the world. Water could also be a metaphor for her shrinking citizen population.

It is also an economic thing; if one has the financial capability, water shortage is never a problem. Just like Singapore, we have the financial might to import almost everything that we lack, up to a certain point before the equilibrium changes.

ZH: Why did you decide to divide the film up into 2 parts?

SO: Water is can be a double-edge sword. Too little of it we will die, too much of it we die too – like prolonged drought and the tsunami.

At least for now, the country is dependent on external sources of water. At the same time, we are also facing the threat of the rising water level through global warming. In some ways, it is ironic and metaphoric, like the two opposing energy of Yin and Yang – we survive if things are in harmony. Hence the 2 parts – Drought and Flood.

ZH: You managed to coax very natural performances out of some of these actors, could you talk a bit about the process?

SO: I use their own stories, and film them in their own homes for most of the stories. I think that helps a lot with the negotiation of the own personal space and the body’s memory of that space. They are also playing the roles with their own family members. I think all of the actors gave great performances; any awkwardness arises because of the situations that they are in but their reaction to those situations are always natural, instinctive and very human.

ZH: How did you cast?

SO: It was a mix between an open audition and some people whom I already had in mind.

ZH: How did you coax them to perform in front of the camera? How did you direct?

SO: I had a rough script in English, which I would rehearse and improvise with the actors in their own language. The script is only a guide; it has to transform itself during the shoot as the actors interact with one another in a particular space. I have no problem to destroy the script in the process of shooting. I don’t really give any specific screen direction; they have to feel comfortable in their own space before they can give me a natural performance. It can never be forced out of an actor.

ZH: Some of the threads contained very real stories, what was the process of composition? Were they written? Did you have certain ideas? Or did you work purely from devising? How was the process of structuring and conceptualizing the various characters like?

SO: It is a fusion of documentary and fiction. I have my own motivations and ideas of course. But I didn’t have the final storyline until I meet the people who came for the audition. Only then can I start to form a structure and flesh out the stories. The stories are real because they come from the actors themselves. I added in the fictional elements as I wrote the script after doing an in-depth interview with them. The audience won’t really know when the documentary ends and the fiction starts. But that is like life also; some of us are walking zombies, we only live in our dreams. We may exist but we don’t live.

ZH: Could you talk a bit about the process of filming? How was your collaboration with Sharon (Director of Photography) like? How many takes did you do on average per shot? (Considering each take was a still and of substantial length.)

SO: It is about trust. I had to trust my crew as much as I had to trust my actors. And to learn to let go, that’s when they can create magic. I trusted Sharon’s instincts and she too would have to understand my vision. I am happy with the collaboration with all my production personnel. Trust – that’s the key point.

With non-trained actors, their first two takes are always the best. I don’t go beyond 2 takes for most of my shots. The takes are long so I have to give my actors as much freedom as they need to feel comfortable. I only pull them back if they are ‘over-the-top’ with their delivery/actions.

ZH: What will you be working on next? Where will Drought and Flood travel to? What are your plans for the piece?

SO: For now I would like the work to have a good Biennale run. The work will have its own life once it is released into the world. I may make some changes to the structure and presentation depending on the location of the screenings.

MORE INFORMATION

TITLE OF WORK: Banjir Kemarau (Flooding in the time of Drought)

DIMENSION OF WORK: Single Channel Video Projection (68 mins)
Presented in two chapters – Drought and Flood.

TIME: The Biennale is open from 11am until 8pm daily. (Close on Mondays) The film is played in loop.

WHERE: Old City Hall Building (Next to Old Supreme Court and Opposite the Padang)

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