Capturing a slice of Seletar life
First-time filmmaker Li Xiuqi takes us behind the camera to share her journey of making the documentary, Seletar Airbase — Singapore’s Secret Garden.
It’s a story that’s happened countless times, particularly in Singapore but also in other countries: There’s a lovely, historic place that has been quietly giving enjoyment to people for years.
One day, this place is noticed, and found to be X hectares of “underdeveloped” land, i.e. a potential money-spinner. Before you know it, the land is quickly turned into an office block or an industrial park, its original character and identity subsumed under some banal facade. Whatever it used to be and used to mean to people lives on only in nostalgic memory.
So when I read the news about the government’s plan to turn Seletar into a 140-hectare aerospace industrial park, my heart sank. Seletar Camp is one of the last few districts of old Singapore that survives almost intact and untouched.
A warm neighbourhood of little colonial houses along quiet lanes, shaded by mature trees and surrounded by green field — Seletar has soul. It has a soul that you don’t find anywhere else on this island. I wanted to somehow distil the soul of the place, bottle it and show to people that it is a precious substance and should be preserved.
But the soul of a place is a nebulous thing. You can’t draw a 2-dimensional map, or make a 3-dimensional model of it. Soul is somehow linked to time, which is the fourth dimension: the growth of a place’s inhabitants and trees, told and untold stories, the cycles of the weather, the daily ebb and flow of activities, the shifting of the light. How could that be captured?
A film seemed to be the natural approach, even though I hadn’t attempted one before. I was inspired by a research film made by two friends from ReallyArchitecture, which is a group of architecture students who believe in the cause of architecture with a social conscience. Together with a few of them (Calvin Chua, June Chua and Green Zeng), I started on a journey that would take us through more than 2 months of research, culminating in 6 days of filming spread over 3 weeks — all this, to produce the 12-minute film that is Seletar Airbase — Singapore’s Secret Garden.The research was a very therapeutic process. It involved enjoying the green and pleasant landscape through morning walks, evening cycling trips and nighttime drives. Spotting kingfishers, gawking at huge trees and admiring pink sunsets were all part of the package.
It also forced me to be sensitive to the place in a way that I never was while I was doing site studies in architecture school. Then, I would do a site visit or two, take note of physical features and measurements and gather hard info for planning with.
But to make a film, one has to know where to see morning mist, what time a certain field will be all lit up, what time the dogs are walked and people play football. One had to be all ears and all eyes, all the time. But after days spent playing with carefree kids and cute dogs in nice gardens, I thought researching such a documentary was the best job in the world.
Making a film also gave me an excuse to talk to and get to know the residents. I think films have a universal appeal, and people find it exciting to be part of one, especially one about their beloved and endangered neighbourhood.
The residents of Seletar Airbase were a dream to work with, completely open and willing to invite me — a near stranger — into their homes, introduce me to their neighbours and even bring me on a walking tour of the area, sometimes for hours. It was a great way to explore a social network. A community with such warmth and generosity is a rare breed in Singapore and I think it is the safe, open-door neighbourhood they live in that has made them that way.
The film I made follows the journey I took to understand this place, from initial impressions and history, to the community, and finally the bleak future that seems to lie ahead. Waiting for a place to reveal its secrets, one moment at a time, isn’t something that can be rushed. But these 12 minutes give a hint of the many sweet days I spent at Seletar.
Watch Seletar Airbase — Singapore’s Secret Garden at the 2nd Singapore Indie Doc Fest on Tuesday, March 6 at 7:30 pm at the Substation Theatre, and at the next Sinema screening on Tuesday, March 13 at 7:30 pm at Timbré.