“It’s so important for a situation as complex as migration to be portrayed in a more existential dimension because otherwise we leave the mass media to talk about it… which is abstract and disconnected from reality. Atlantics is about how migration actually affects and transforms our intimate lives.“
– Mati Diop, Senegalese filmmaker

A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers

A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers

We are separated by bridges that transit our divides

Films are always about building bridges between cultures – so this year we have focused instead on a cinematic conversation with our closest neighbour across the Causeway – to find out what is on each other’s side of the bridge. Consequently, the Freedom Film Festival have zoomed-in our lenses to work with filmmakers in Malaysia and Singapore to strip away the distance, the immigration checkpoints, the water price and food wars between us and instead share stories about our lives separated by bridges.

This year’s Festival showcases a retrospective of four Singaporean filmmakers – Lynn Lee, Tay Bee Pin, Tan Pin Pin and Martyn See – their differing cinematic styles offer us a unique Singaporean signature touching on the weighty themes of the art-of-the-state propaganda in North Korea, political detentions and control of the media to tales of nostalgia in Singapore’s HDB housing heartland.

The cinematic works featured in the Singapore Retrospective include:

  1. The Great North Korean Picture Show, 2012 by Lynn Lee
  2. Invisible City, 2007 by Tan Pin Pin
  3. Said Zahari’s 17 years, 2015 by Martyn See
  4. Memory Makers: The Four HDB Blocks of Siglap, 2015 by Tay Bee Pin
  5. Orang Singapura? / Make it Right for Singapore, 2020 by Tay Bee Pin

Lynn Lee

“What is the truth? What is real? All we can say is we opened a door, walked in, and observed.”
– Lynn Lee

Lynn Lee is a Singapore-based filmmaker whose collaborations with James Leong has led to many international successes. Their first feature documentary., Passabe won a film grant from Sundance Institute Documentary Fund and screened at film festivals across the world. Homeless FC (2006) lifted top prize at the Chinese Documentary Festival and in 2007 Aki Ra’s Boys took home the Encyclopedia Award at the Almaty International Film Festival. The Great North Korean Picture Show (2012) was followed by Wukan: The Flame of Democracy which had its world premiere at IDFA 2013. This was followed with If We Burn (2020) that gave us an insight into the Hong Kong protest movement through the eyes of Hong Kongers.

FreedomFilmFest kicks off this year’s A Retrospective on Singaporean Filmmakers with a screening of The Great North Korean Picture Show which was inspired by the two directors’ meeting with North Korean movie stars when their documentary, ‘Aki Ra’s Boys’ was invited to the Pyongyang International Film Festival.

“But we were not interested in shooting on the sly. We wanted access – proper access – that would allow us to interact with our subjects openly and candidly, over an extended period of time. We wanted to meet the people behind the propaganda, understand their motivations and get to know their personal stories. It took us more than half a year to secure this access and when permission was finally granted, we were told we had to agree to a few rules. Should we say yes and risk being accused of making a film that was less than objective, or decline and have the door close on us?
– Director’s statement, thegreatnorthkoreanpictureshow.com

“Some people have hated it because it doesn’t make a strong overt statement about how horrible the place is. But we don’t do that, and we have actually got people who are very angry that we don’t do that. If you handpick very privileged North Koreans to make propaganda about how wonderful life is in North Korea, they would have no conflict at all making that propaganda because to them, it’s the truth.

And how human is that? It applies to everyone. As Singaporeans, a lot of people would say (the system) works because my life is good… It’s like you can say life is great here because it’s great for you, but you don’t see that it’s not so great for other people and it’s the same all over the world. It’s exactly the same.”
– James Leong co-director, Singapore filmmakers reveal unknown side of North Korea (YahooNews)

The film was recently screened in the Bergen International Film Festival – Norway in Oct 2020

The Great North Korean Picture Show is the opening film in our A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers and playing at the CloudTheatre digital platform on Friday, 11th December. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here

Tan Pin Pin

“I feel as if I am trying to conjure up ghosts. I see it Invisible City, To Singapore, with Love, and The Impossibility of Knowing. It’s as if I am trying to speak for, bring forth, bring notice to people events or places that can’t speak for themselves, which makes me a temple medium.”
– Tan Pin PIn

Tan Pin Pin is Singaporean filmmaker whose keen explorations of Singapore’s histories have been screened at Berlin, Pusan, Visions du Reel, Cinema du Reel and Rotterdam festivals. She has won more than 20 awards, including the Student Academy Award for Best Documentary for Moving House, her thesis film. Singapore GaGa, one of her most well-known films, was voted the Best Film in 2006 by The Straits Times in Singapore.  Her oeuvre includes In Time To Come (2017),To Singapore, With Love (2013), Pineapple Town (2015) and a short film included in the 7 Letters (2015) anthology. The most controversial of these, To Singapore, With Love (2013), depicting the emotional claustrophobia of those whose lives were lived in political exile, was banned in Singapore.

The second installment screening in FreedomFilmFest’s A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers, Tan Pin Pin’s Invisible City (2007) is according to her, “a documentary about documenteurs,” the people who were trying to recover this fading idea of Singapore in their work. This film is her quest to comprehend their inner need to recover the past while at the same time excavate their discoveries.

Gestures of Resistance: An Interview with Tan Pin Pin
Documentaries have always been read to be “more political” just by virtue of it being a documentary, than say fiction film. So whether I wanted it or not, just making a documentary, highlighting issues and showing Singapore as is, is already considered a political act in a country where not long ago, people were noticed for having views. In Singapore, being an artist can be a political gesture. Many of my films were made to find out how I feel about certain issues, and the audience follows me as I pursue a line of enquiry.”

Whose invisible city? Articulating Singapore’s pasts in Invisible City
“..they seek to bequeath aspects of experiences and images of the world their generation lived through, which are of value beyond the circle of their own family—film footage and photographs which have become rare simply because no one else has bothered to record the then ordinary scenes of landscape natural and built, and everyday life; photographs of participation in past struggles which contest those usually selected for contemporary circulation, and which give a diametrically opposed reading of the events; songs that can still be sung on demand, testifying to the depth of the experience and commitment to the causes for which they were rallying cries. Each of these traces of the past is able to tell that much less without the presence of its creator and/or custodian.”

Invisible City is the second instalment screening in A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers at the CloudTheatre digital platform on Saturday, 12th December. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here

Maartyn See – The Punk Rock Filmmaker

“I’m into the rebels” – Martyn See

Described as a Singaporean political blogger and filmmaker with two banned films, two police investigations and a conscience that just won’t let him rest by blogger Jess Scott, many of Martyn films are a critique of the politics of repression in Singapore. See who has been a constant thorn in the side of the Singaporean authorities had his first short film ‘Singapore Rebel’, on political dissident and Opposition leader, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, banned for being deemed to be an illegal political film. A second ban was issued on his next film, ‘Said Zahari’s 17 Years’, on former journalist Said Zahari who was detained for 17 years without trial and in 2010, ‘Dr Lim Hock Siew’ faced similar censure, completing a unholy trinity of banned films.

FreedomFilmFest screens film about ex-political detainee

As part of this year’s A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers, FreedomFilmFest will be screening Martin See’s Said Zahari’s 17 Years. While the Singaporean government has accused  the film as an attempt by Zahari “to exculpate himself from his past involvement in communist united front activities”, Martyn asserts that the film is a 50-minute long interview with Zahari about his 17-year detention — one of the longest in Singapore — and the fear among former political detainees to talk about their experience. “The government is clearly not allowing history to be heard. It does not want to acknowledge the history of detention because it is an acute embarrassment,” See said. (Reuters 2007)

Singapore – Interview of Martyn See, filmmaker by Reporters San Frontieres

Freedom of Expression: Interview with filmmaker Martyn See (Singapore)
“In this interview Martyn See speaks about his experience of censorship at the Singapore film festival and the subsequent popularity of his films that circulated on the internet. The two controversial films referred to are Said Zahari’s 17 Years and Singapore Rebel.

Two different worlds, one common struggle: Aliran’s interview with Said Zahari

“(Certain quarters) tried to argue that it was a political strike – in
other words, we wanted to take control of the newspapers so that we could support the left-wing political parties who were socialist and pro-communist and pro-Indonesia and so on. A few years after the Utusan strike in 1961, all the other newspapers were one after another taken over by the party in power, by the government. Nobody talks about freedom of the press anymore; until today, the journalists, they (rarely) talk about freedom of the press.– Said Zahari (Aliran 2002)


A salute to Said Zahari

“Said was also one of the most prominent victims of repression by Lee Kuan Yew’s government in Singapore. He was arrested with over 100 others during the republic’s “Operation Cold Storage” in February 1963. He remained incarcerated without trial for 17 years, at the end of which he was confined by the authorities to a small island in the Tebrau Straits separating the island republic from Johor.  In the early 1970s, Said’s poems from prison, smuggled out, were compiled, edited and published by his closest friend, the late Usman Awang. His poems and Usman’s own “Salute” to Said were read and recited by thousands of students, activists and sympathisers in Singapore, Malaysia and abroad for years, encouraging struggles by countless others inspired by Said’s selfless and resolute determination despite his ordeal.”

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Paying a hefty price for his principles

“Utusan Melayu was an audacious paper raring to take risks. At the height of Malay political consciousness, Utusan Melayu was the suara keramat (revered voice) of the Malays. It was in that atmosphere that Said joined the paper. It wasn’t long before Said was to taste the bitter reality of the paper’s principles. The argument among the ruling elite at the time was that Utusan Melayu’s uncompromising position was not good for the fledgling nation.

Umno engineered an editorial coup. The journalists stood firm.

The infamous mogok (strike) of 1961 lasted 90 days. It was a defining moment in the history of journalism in the country. It was an event replete with heroism, comradeship and betrayal. Fighting the Establishment had its perils. In cahoots with the Singapore government, Said was not allowed to come back to Malaya and was deprived of editing his own paper. He was later taken in under the Internal Security Act (ISA) under “Operation Coldstore”, together with 117 others who were made up of union leaders, suspected communists and social activists. He was to be in incarceration for 17 long years.

Said Zahari’s 17 Years is screening at A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers at the CloudTheatre digital platform on Sunday, 13th December. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here

Tay Bee Pin – The Much-Travelled Storyteller of the Past

An alumni of Berlinale Talent And Rotterdam Lab, Tay Bee Pin’s first produced film “Breakfast Lunch Dinner” has travelled to over 25 international festivals. His film projects have also been selected four times at Golden Horse film Project Promotion.

FreedomFilmFest’s fourth screening in its A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers is Memory Makers- The Four HDB Blocks of Siglap. The film recounts the past and nostalgia behind these iconic four blocks of low-rise HDB flats many of whose residents have lived there over 50 years and are reluctant to leave a place with so much memories of their lives.

Scene from Memory Makers – The Four HDB Blocks of Siglap
“I have been here since 1968. The old shopfront looked different and old fashioned. The demand for photo taking services has reduced. I had to downsize my business and sell random things. In the digital age everyone prints their own photos. There is no need to visit a photo shop anymore. There wasn’t good money to make but make only barely enough to survive. (smile please) (move slightly to the side) (smile…ready) (Don’t close your eyes they are small) (Open your eyes wider) “

Memory Makers- The Four HDB Blocks of Siglap and Orang Singapore will be screened at A Retrospective of Singaporean Filmmakers at the CloudTheatre digital platform on Sunday, 13th December. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here