Filmmakers Wang Ziyi and Noppatad Luangvaranan on Their Award-Winning Works at the SMHFF Short Film Youth Competition 202116 min readReading Time: 11 minutes
Now in its third year, the Singapore Mental Health Film Festival (SMHFF) continues its goal in advocating constructive conversations on mental health through film, panel conversations, physical workshops and programmes.
One of these programmes is the festival’s Short Film Youth Competition (SFYC), seeking to empower youths by giving them a voice through film to advocate for mental wellness and issues surrounding dementia. The competition, which ran from December 2020 to February 2021, challenged over 450 youths participants to create a short film based on any of the five topics: cyberbullying and trauma, life transitions, young caregivers, recovery, or suicide prevention.
To hone their knowledge and craft, participants were required to attend workshops on the given topics and on filmmaking techniques, including short film screenwriting and post-production work. Facilitating these workshops are subjects experts that included the Samaritans of Singapore, TOUCH Youth Intervention, LASALLE College of The Arts film lecturer Wesley Leon Aroozoo, and documentary filmmaker Eileen Chong.
The competition saw 70 short film entries. The field was then narrowed down to 10, with the finalists’ works showcased via Facebook live stream on 8 May.
The results of the competition would be announced at the festival’s Opening Night on 17 May. The Audience Choice Award went to I Can’t, directed by Ian Teng, while Wang Ziyi’s Sometimes We Forget took home the Best Impact Short Film prize. Claiming the Best Overall Short Film award is Dragon Quest, directed by Noppatad Luangvaranan.
Sometimes We Forget is a poignant look at dementia and the emotional weights placed on the shoulders of young caregivers. Through its moody atmosphere and evocative performances, the short highlights the suddenness of the ailment for both the afflicted and their loved ones. The fatigue from caretaking — especially for the young lead — only makes the cherished times together shine ever brighter, while the same memories fade away for their ageing relatives.
Dragon Quest presents a unique take on the headwinds faced by youths seeking help for their mental health challenges. With a lighthearted approach, the short film brings to attention the frustration that comes with ill-equipped therapists while celebrating the courage of every youth who have reached out for help and continues to endeavour on their quest.
As the Best Overall Short Film, Dragon Quest opened SMHFF 2021 and will subsequently be screened at New York City Mental Health Film Festival and Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival in Canada.
Commenting on the winning films, Cheryl Tan, Executive Director of SMHFF, shared: “We are extremely happy that Dragon Quest and Sometimes We Forget clinched the top two awards! The judging panel was incredibly impressed by these two short films, the storytelling and cinematography.”
“For Dragon Quest, the depiction of establishing proper boundaries, even with therapists, and to eventually shedding of the layers the main character built as defense for himself are strong messages for everyone who might be going through a distressing period. These young filmmakers show us that the younger generation can produce incredible content to share important stories and be advocates of constructive mental health conversations.”
We spoke with directors Wang Ziyi and Noppatad Luangvaranan to find out more about their films and to learn about their experiences with SMHFF SFYC 2021.
Tell us about yourself and share with us your filmmaking journey so far
Wang Ziyi: I’m currently a JC2 student studying at Temasek Junior College. I’m from China and I came to Singapore about four years ago.
Film has always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I first started to make short films when I was in primary school. When I was 14, I was fortunate enough to join a filmmaking summer camp for teenagers where I co-directed and acted in a student short film that won Overall Best Film Award and Best Acting Award there. It also received the Future Star Award in the Chinese Korean Share Your Dream Short Film Festival.
I’ve always felt very fortunate in my filmmaking journey, both in China and in Singapore, because I’ve met many kind, passionate, and talented people, who guided and encouraged me. When I first came to Singapore, I studied at CHIJ St. Nicholas Girls’ School where I met our alumna, director Eva Tang. I was given the opportunity to play a role in our school’s docu-drama, From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio. I learnt a lot about filmmaking and met many film industry professionals.
Sometimes We Forget is the first short film that I directed independently, and I guess my filmmaking journey will continue. There are many more stories in mind that I want to tell but now I just have to study hard for A-Levels.
Noppatad Luangvaranan: I’ve been a film nerd since Kindergarten 2, and after watching like a thousand VHS tapes — I decided to beg my mum for a Sony Handicam in secondary school and I’ve been making short films and stupid little videos since then. Together, with my band of merry men (and woman), we formed ThatParanoidStudio (don’t ask about the name) and we have been making a series of micro-films, short films and work projects throughout the years.
What drew you to participate in the Short Film Youth Competition?
Ziyi: I’ve always wanted to make films for something good. With its power to connect one another and to give voice to the voiceless, I believe that film is a perfect medium to advocate for social issues. Films have given me lots of strength during challenging times in my life and I hope that the films I create do the same for others.
I care very much about mental health too. I am very fascinated by the complex nature of human minds and I even thought about studying Psychology or Medicine in university before. Mental health is a very important topic because it can greatly affect people’s lives. Mental illness has become even more prevalent in today’s fast-paced world, where people rarely have time to care for themselves. However, we seldom talk about mental health, especially in Asian societies.
Not talking about mental health is scary. The stigmas prevent many people living with a mental illness from seeking professional help, which may lead to tragic consequences. We have to start a conversation about it and build a mental illness-friendly society.
My friend found out about SMHFF’s Short Film Youth Competition while doing research for her project work report last year and told me about it because she knew that I might be interested. I was thrilled when I learnt about such a competition because using film to advocate for mental health was exactly what I wanted to do. I had some free time after finishing my promotional exams at that time so I decided to sign up.
Noppatad: Generally, I don’t like participating in subject matters that I can’t relate to because ideas just can’t flow like that. Given that SMHFF’s core concept is about mental issues, it’s something I’ve been quite acquainted with, and it helps me formulate the story within the theme of the festival. At the same time, finding others that resonate with the subject could be a heartening experience, given how personal the subject matter is to me and others out there.
How did the concept for your film come about?
Ziyi: I wrote the script largely based on my personal experience with my grandma who suffers from dementia. In fact, many details in the film are real, like, how the grandma in the film chased away the maid by accusing her of stealing. My grandma chased away at least one domestic helper every month for a few years until her condition deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t even argue with the helper anymore.
It took a long time for me to decide which story to tell. At first, I wasn’t willing to tell a story that close to my heart, so I wrote a story about a woman at the pinnacle of her career and her mother with early-onset Alzheimer’s. However, the story didn’t feel compelling enough, so I wrote another one, and another one, and another one. After not being satisfied with the five different stories I wrote, someone told me that the story that I hold dear to my heart is the one that I should tell because it’s powerful, even though it hurts a little to tell.
I’ve always felt guilty towards my grandma because I think that I didn’t treat her well. We had an awkward relationship when she developed middle-stage dementia. I couldn’t see that she loved me and I didn’t love her either. I even resent her sometimes. However, by the time I’ve become mature and finally realised that she loves me as always, I was too busy studying and seldom had time to visit her. I’m only able to see her once a year after I came to Singapore. I finally had the courage to write about this story, and when I teared up after finishing the first draft, I knew this was the right story.
Noppatad: I’ve always been in love with genre films — something Sci-fi, Fantasy or really anything pulpy, I’m into. Together with my love for video games, it helps lay the baseline for the story, a mix of high fantasy ideas and gaming conventions. They also helped me gravitate towards creating our Knight’s story — how he went through multiple levels of finding therapists to finally face off against his Dragon, a metaphor for his mental health issue. Coupled with my experience with therapists, the two concepts come together pretty easily.
What are some of the stigmas you identified surrounding the topic and how did you look to tackle them with your film?
Ziyi: The stigma that I want to address is about the relationship between people with dementia and their family members or caregivers. After a person is diagnosed with dementia, their relationship with family may change. Family members may not want to talk about dementia, perceive them as having little or no quality of life, or avoid interacting with them like I did.
Through our film, I hope to show that dementia does not define those who are suffering from it. Taking care of people with dementia can be frustrating, and seeing how they gradually turn to strangers is hard, but we need to know that what’s inside them won’t be changed. They are more than the disease, they are people with stories and they need love and attention too. We need to understand that dementia may take away the memory but it cannot take away the love. Just like our title, sometimes we just forget how much we love each other, and when they can no longer remember how much they love us, we can remember for them.
Noppatad: I figured that if I went through the same ordeal as my main character did — I’m pretty sure that there are other people who also went through the same thing, and it’s a silent nod to the things we go through and a comfort through relatability.
Where stigmas are concerned, it’s actually kind of nice to see that people are more open to the idea of getting help. I understand it’s still a very touchy topic for a lot of people, but at least amongst the people I’ve worked with, and my family, the conversation has been very open and that’s quite a wholesome thing to have.
I always knew that generally, heavy topics like mental illness would usually be defined in the format of drama or a slow burn, but I feel like that’s kind of the easy way out. I believe that you can tackle any topic with any genre as long as you treat the issue seriously and with respect.
Personally, I always find humour and levity to be a very nice comfort for me when I’m down — so I wanted to portray that through my film as well, where you don’t have to approach the heavy topic with such seriousness. You can also approach it with kindness and humour. At least for me, that was the experience that worked.
What was the biggest challenge faced during the filmmaking process?
Ziyi: The biggest challenge for many of us is to make this film while having school classes. Most of our cast and crew are students, so we had to finish shooting before school started in January. We only had about two weeks to prepare before shooting. Those two weeks were very chaotic — amending scripts, attending workshops, casting actors, finding locations, scheduling rehearsal… I remember only sleeping for four hours on most of the days and skipping two meals every day. The fact that we were students, who were not familiar with filmmaking, the mistakes we made made this process even more stressful.
Doing post-production after school started was a big nightmare for me. I’ve never done editing before and I had to learn to use the editing software. I learnt little by little and tried out many different versions, so I almost ran out of time in the end. I had to continue editing despite knowing that there will be a lecture test the next day or that I had not finished my homework because if I didn’t, everything we did before would be in vain.
There were countless times that I asked myself whether I regret making this film. The answer is, surprisingly, always a “no”. This journey is tough but meaningful. The film received great feedback and everyone on the team learnt something from this journey. I believe that “to love is to suffer”. We suffer from it because we love it.
Noppatad: I was really unsure most of the time, I feel. It was quite a scary experience because I didn’t know if I managed to write a good story — and seeing how I’m a first time director, that kind of multiplies the fear. Thankfully, I have a really good crew and an excellent cast to keep me in check. For both creativity and mask-on safety check.
Have you caught any of the other films from the competition? What are your favourites?
Ziyi: Yes, I watched all of the short films. Dragon Quest is definitely great. It’s such a well-written story about a journey to recovery. I love how they use the metaphors of dragons and armour that allows us to visualise intangible emotions. The hand-drawn images in the film are very creative. It’s a brave and heartwarming film.
I love Launder with Care too. It’s a sensitive and delicately made film. I love how the story is set around a laundromat and how the two women turn from strangers to friends and care for each other. I can feel the emotions flowing beneath the dialogue.
Noppatad: Yes, my favourite is Mia’s Animarium. I find it really impressive that such young filmmakers are able to pull together such a surrealistic take on mental health issues. The film was emotionally bearing and experimental, akin to Sandi Tan’s Shirkers. No other films came close to how pure the filmmaking is in the competition.
What do you hope viewers take away from your film?
Ziyi: I hope that viewers will treasure what they have, remember what they forgot, rediscover what they thought they’ve lost, and reexamine what they thought cannot be changed.
I hope that our film offers a glimpse to the life and challenges of young caregivers who are taking care of relatives with dementia, so that they can empathise with these young caregivers and people who suffer from dementia and help build a dementia-friendly society together.
To all the caregivers who are watching this film, I hope that you know that you are not alone. The caregiving journey is tough, but we are all here for each other.
Noppatad: To the people who went through or are still struggling with mental health, I really hope that if you found comfort in our Knight’s story, this film is a reminder that it’s never gonna be easy on your own but if you find the right support, whether it be a good therapist, through friends and family, or a really funny Netflix comedy special, you got this. And to the people who aren’t going through this issue, there’s a really cool green dragon in the film.
About Singapore Mental Health Film Festival 2021
Happening from 22 May to 30 May, SMHFF 2021 will use films as a catalyst to tackle mental wellness issues that include: “COVID-19: Navigating the Demands of Change”, “Suicide Prevention”, and “Mental Health at the Workplace”. The festival will present nine films through a hybrid format of both physical screenings and online screenings at https://watch.smhff.com/. Each ticket will also enable access to accompanying panel conversations and short films.
Additionally, SMHFF 2021 will also be holding workshops at the National Gallery Singapore focused on mental well-being. For ticket purchases and full programme information, visit https://smhff.com/. Give the festival’s Facebook and Instagram page a follow for the latest updates.
The interview has been edited for clarity