The Puttnam School of Film held its fifth annual Avant Premiere at The Cathay on the 22 May 2012, as 21 graduands presented their thesis films to faculty and guests from the film and creative industries. It is the debutante ball of the graduating class; a parade of mastery acquired from our education and a rite of passage into creative adulthood and accountability. In some ways, it is the final threshold before we are inducted into the real world to become who we want to be and not having to pretend anymore.
Filmmaking can direct one inwards, into skeletons and cobwebs of memories too sensitive to be exposed or too difficult to be outwardly spoken. Collectively, we create stories to reclaim our identities that serve as a reminder that our mnemonic geist are indeed part of our filmmaking infrastructure.
To be exposed, examined, re-examined and criticized for our innate sensibilities and all the choices that led us to this point; to be evaluated by future peers and openly judged by some of the best in the business – this is what is at stake at Avant Premiere.
In Kasih, Chermin Teo re-imagines the biographical life of her aunt who married a Malay husband and the sacrifices the couple endures to be together. The issue of inter-racial marriage is delicately tackled through its central protagonist, Farhan, who is trapped between his conservative Muslim family who disowns him and his traditional mother in law (Ah Ma) who disapproves of him. He essentially has two houses but no home. His relationship with his wife, Ling, is not a fairy tale love affair as well. In fact, their marriage has deteriorated into a tiresome cycle of routines, eroded by the daily pressures of financial insecurity and social stigma. Farhan walks on egg shells at home with Ah Ma, a conventional Chinese woman instilled with a traditional mindset; a woman who would bear the burden of her illness in silence to keep her daughter safe. The beauty of this story is the sincere realism in which the director, Mildred Chia, allow the characters to unravel at their own pace and psychic space. The audience discovers the differences of traditional love and modern love, a cultural phenomenon inspired by Hollywood romantic comedies and fantasies. This family is nothing like that, yet it is one that truly loves one another and would do anything to protect each other.
Another personal story, Flutter, is Sivaraj Pragasm’s visual therapy to the doubt he experiences in his own life colliding with his desire to find his own voice. The film experiments with synergizing visual and audio language to tell a psychological story about a man’s spiral down isolation and schizophrenia. The story takes place in two dimensions, reality and dreamscape; and through the tension between these two states of being, the film explores mental psychosis. Flutter fits into Sivaraj’s body of work, which is characterized by genre based experimentations of the visual neuroticism and madness of outsider characters. His vision is uncompromising on audience expectations, focusing on the intricacies of the abstract and clearly a channel of self-expression. The film is not afraid to be different, an outsider like his characters. However the director’s sensibility is felt strongly here and the masculine texture of the directing contrasts with its cinematic fluidity and subtlety in an attempt to invent new experimentations in film form.
William Liew fictionalizes the life of his friends who are a real couple, The Fountains, as a tribute to their long-lasting marriage set in the lush English countryside to tell a universal tale of letting go. The mise-en-scene meticulously crafted and intricately designed, is captured almost too beautifully by the cinematographic lens of the filmmakers; depicting the mundane and sterile livelihood of an old English couple who relive a traumatic experience after receiving a wedding invitation on the date of their daughter’s death anniversary. The heartwarming plot, a model of classical narrative storytelling, reflects on the miscommunication between two individuals in a confined space of their cottage using mood to invoke loss, nostalgia and hope for the future. Tonal sentiments and visual awe are the two factors that impact the audience deeply. For a moment, the audience remembers what it feels like to lose someone; impermanence and the long-lasting grief before being able to moving on.
While Natasha Rathod’s Marionette Song pays homage to the motherland she reminisces as a child, and the memory of its purity that has been desecrated by the sheer pace of modernization. The film begins with a voice over narration of the filmmaker’s personal story told through lyrical poetic overlaying simple yet beautiful shots of iconic cityscapes. The merger of sound and image romanticizes the city in which the filmmaker was born. From this mist of bliss, the visuals progressively turn frantic as the images as sped up into a whirlwind of accelerated cars, people, trains – life. Beauty is met with cynicism, irony and dysfunction. A cohesion of lights and sounds is bombarded onto the audience, mimicking the adrenalin of the city hustle. Here, the message is clear, the paradise she fell in love as a child has been overtaken by the chaos of Capitalism.
That’s Wicked! explores director Joy Lee’s passion for subcultures hidden in the underbelly of society. She uncovers the competitive world of beat boxing through an aspiring beat boxer, Martin, who at 15 takes part in a competition to hone his craft and shine in front of an audience. His goal is to win and win big. The film’s free spirited quality mixed with a charismatic central character and brilliantly choreographed sound design results in unpretentious storytelling with the most ingenious unscripted interview to close. The filmmaker’s personality really shines through. For a film that relies heavily on sound design due to its subject matter, the modern composition and well balanced editing brought a fresh voice to the topic and set the tempo for an enjoyable film that does not try too hard to please. Martin did not win his contest, but the film sure won many fans with its candid portrayal of beat boxing culture.
There has also been an exceeding amount of growth and maturity in the themes tackled by the students this year. Perhaps entering a bolder and more mature cinema is the direction of the film school as the class attempts to better the last year with stories that involve more genre mixing and social themes.
Mads Baekkevold’s Cluster marries his genre aesthetic with human drama through complex and sometimes dangerous characters dealing with death or survival. Through an ensemble cast trapped in a bomb shelter basement during a mysterious viral outbreak, human nature is explored in a not so distant science fiction reality. As the characters undergo the breakdown of their sanity and humanity in this confined space, the debris of society outside becomes an imagination. Horror rides in an undercurrent of suspicion and desperation. Savagery corrodes and system erodes as chaos builds, balloons and bursts in a deranged crescendo of violence against each other and against the meaning of human kind. The realistic directing style, gritty cinematography, intense acting and mischievous editing serves the theme and stylishly creates a mood that instigates in an audience a visceral desire for blood. The result is epic.
Kasambahay is an expository documentary by Filipino student Ted Boglosa about the inner thoughts of a compatriot domestic helper working in Singapore, giving a voice to an outsider in our society. The film paints a portrait of a strong woman who leaves her family in order to work for a better life. She lives largely unnoticed in a metropolitan city so engulfed with the dream of wealth and status. Initially a fish out of water, a laborer in a foreign circumstance; the subject finds a channel to express her thoughts, her dreams, her fears, her happiness and sadness. Suddenly, this outsider living on the fringe is alive, it has feelings, it has wants and needs. She becomes a person we relate to and empathize with simply because of her baring honesty and emotional conflicts. The simplicity and straightforward nature of this documentary is a salutation to the unglamorous yet fervent work that these foreign workers contribute to our society.
Lastly, Naveen Varma studies family dysfunction through three conflicting brothers in a crime and gangster setting in Together. The writer/ director’s natural attraction to gangster films and themes of revenge and betrayal led him to attempt an ambitious film that focuses on the reunion of three brothers who have drifted apart at their father’s funeral. Despite their initial animosity and mistrust towards one another, they band together when they discover a common enemy, their greedy uncle who is bent on stealing the hidden treasure. The film explores family ties and the sentimental value of shared childhood memories which form the foundation of their eventual reconciliation.
To be exposed, examined, re-examined and criticized for our innate sensibilities and all the choices that led us to this point; to be evaluated by future peers and openly judged by some of the best in the business – this is what is at stake at Avant Premiere. One look at the films and the audience can gauge one’s proficiency at camera work, editing, screenwriting, directing, but most importantly grasps one’s craft for cinematic aesthetics and art of visual storytelling.
In a post-screening interview, the guests gave valuable advice and critiques to the graduating students, the general consensus was that the visual images were impressive at our level but reminded the students to focus on content. Style and substance go together and this is one of the lessons that we have learnt from our experience at The Puttnam School of Film. Kasih in particular was lauded for its honest and sincere portrayal of an elderly Chinese lady learning to accept her Malay son-in-law, while Marionette Song stood out for saying what was buried in the psyche of everyone’s minds.
However, impressing the audience was secondary to the primary objective – to celebrate a year of hardship and collaboration through sitting down in a packed theatre to admire the work of our peers.
This is, after all, the beginning of more hardships and collaborations to come.
Jeremy Chua specialised in producing and screenwriting for his BA (Hons) Film and one of the graduands from the batch of 2012. He is working on presenting several new film art exhibitions in Singapore and internationally including Human Frames programme at Centre Pompidou and Roskilde Museet for Samtidskunst.
Images courtesy of Cho Yeijin and Alvin Tan.