The Road to Singapore

Singapore, known abroad for its hard-line approach to petty crime (remember Michael Fay?), a ban on chewing gum and the zealous antics of Annabel Chong (featured in the documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story), is moving into the 21st century with a new mission: to become the Southeast Asian regional hub for factual programming.

This endeavor was brought to fruition at the recent inaugural Asia Factual Forum (www.asiafactualforum.com), a three-day series of seminars geared towards educating filmmakers and production houses with new trends and opportunities, against the backdrop of social camaraderie and a scenic SingaporeRiver. The aim of the forum is “connecting Asian content with international markets”; this was well-represented by the 120 delegates from 15 countries who were in attendance. 

Asia, being steeped in history and heritage that could appeal to much of the world, offers an abundance of stories that can be explored through Asian production companies collaborating with international partners.” Thus opened an insightful keynote address provided by Dr. Christopher Chia, CEO of the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA). This mantra was echoed time and again through presentations offered by Vikram Channa of Discovery Asia Inc., Mika Kanaya from NHK and Mok Choy Lin and Courtney Thompson from the National Geographic Channel.

International players such as Pat Ferns from Ferns Productions Ltd. (Canada), Michele Schofield from AETN All Asia Networks and Ulla Streib of Darlow Smithson (UK) all approached the topic of mining content from Asia from a variety of angles, and a universal theme emerged. In the words of Thompson, senior manager for development and production for National Geographic Channels International, the mission is to create “programs that are globally relevant but retain a local audience.” 

A host of perspectives from producers and broadcast executives shed light on how best to realize this aim; what became clear is that there are no easy solutions. Indeed, this is a process very much in evolution in terms of both content and technology. Norm Bolen from Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting noted that “local producers don’t want their content homogenized,” while Michele Schofield from AETN All Asia Networks cited the need to “give an international audience something to grab onto.” The merits of subtitling versus voiceover were discussed, and a successful marriage of the two was shown during a clip from the recent National Geographic documentary Brat Camp: China, produced by Singaporean production house threesixzero Productions.

This program, as explained by NGC’s Lin, allowed cinema vérité conversations among Chinese to play out with subtitles, while interview segments from Chinese speakers were given a voiceover in English. Principle characters whose Chinese names may prove daunting to Western audiences were anointed with Western nicknames such as “Slacker Boy” or “Cry Baby,” to allow for enhanced audience recognition. The result was a well-crafted fusion of info-educational programming that details how China’s new generation of single children, commonly known as “Little Emperors” and “Little Empresses,” are now prone to idleness, alienation and overindulgence from well-meaning relatives. One solution is for parents to send them to a re-education boot camp, where they are forced to march up to 40 miles a day––rain or shine––shielded from the elements only by a red umbrella that each of the hundreds of enlistees holds throughout his or her “forced march.” Chinese army veterans oversee the enlistees throughout their six-month journey into adulthood.

High definition (HD) is the format of choice for television production in the region, avoiding the need for NTSC/PAL conversions and feeding the need for an ever-growing audience that owns HD-ready television sets. For independent documentary makers in the Asia region, HD video (HDV) is often used for budgetary reasons and the broadcast executives at the Asia Factual Forum had varying perspectives on the format wars. For National Geographic’s Thompson, “If it’s a must-show program, then anything goes” in terms of the format used. For Discovery Asia’s Channa, “HDV or DV formats are used by filmmakers taking part in the First-Time Filmmakers program initiated by Discovery.” 

Galen Yeo, creative director of Singapore-based production house Moving Visuals, offers another perspective: “Generally, factual programming is moving along in the form of lifestyle and infotainment shows for the local market. Pure documentaries—point of view narratives and such—are far and few between. The regional factual channels like Nat Geo and Discovery are responsible for driving Asian documentaries, but more in the science and wildlife realm. Social documentaries arent really the mainstay; the documentaries sought after need to fit into the programming slates of the channels. Whats missing is stuff that you would see on CNN, BBC, HBO and European channels—more history, cutting edge, social issue or subject documentaries. Co-production has been the way forward for us. Now Caldecott Productions is also trying to co-produce shows with NHK to do specifically Asian documentaries with Asian directors. Thats opening up another avenue.”

As is the case with much of the never-ending development in Singapore, the drive to promote and nurture documentary filmmaking has been led by a series of government initiatives by agencies, such as the Economic Development Board (EDB) and the Media Development Authority (MDA), and through burgeoning media studies programs at the polytechnic and university levels. The cumulative result has been that Singapore has enjoyed a maturing of its documentary output during the past decade––not only in terms of programming hours, but in terms of its creative constraints as well, which once posed a threat to this small nation of four million, sometimes referred to as a “nanny state” by the international media. In terms of media restrictions within the Singapore market, topics such as race, religion and homosexuality continue to be closely monitored by the MDA so as to conform to long-held local standards. Films such as Jesus Camp and Lust, Caution, however, were both shown uncensored in movie theaters in Singapore, something that would be unthinkable a decade ago.

Feature filmmaking in Singapore peaked in the 1950s and 1960s and went into a lengthy decline until the late 1990s. Local budgets here pale in comparison to Hollywood productions or larger-budget independent films, as nearly all Singaporean feature films are made for well under $3 million, with most now being shot on HD rather than 35mm or 16mm film. Recognizing that its feature films have a primarily local audience due to budget and language issues, Singapore officials hedged their bets and now emphasize documentary and animation genres to reach a wider, often global audience, and their foresight has paid off.

Singapore now is home to regional offices for National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Disney and Lucasfilm, among many others. Singapore’s EDB is largely responsible for convincing National Geographic and Discovery Channel to set up branch offices here, with an offer to share the start-up costs and help to fund a series of documentaries to be made by filmmakers from the region. 

The Media Development Authority and its affiliate, the Singapore Film Commission, have also proven to be powerhouses in allowing young, often first-time filmmakers from Singapore to find their voices, offering partial or full financial support to Singaporean film students and even providing funding support that allows Singaporean filmmakers to travel overseas to screen their work at international festivals. Recipients pursuing studies at overseas institutions need to fulfill a service commitment of two years working in media-related companies in Singapore within five years after graduation, according to MDA guidelines. 

To date, some 35 Singaporeans have received partial or full scholarships from the MDA to study at overseas institutions such as New YorkUniversity, the National Film and Television School (UK), LondonFilmSchool, USC and StanfordUniversity since the scheme was first launched in 2003. Hundreds more have pursued media studies at a host of universities and polytechnics in Singapore, and the local fascination for film and media studies has not escaped the notice of international film schools such as New York University, which recently launched its Tisch School of the Arts Asia film program here and has imported some of its faculty from New York towards this end.

A number of schools, including Ngee Ann Polytechnic, offer specific courses that focus solely on documentary production. Media students in Singapore enjoy the opportunity to put their skills to the test as they spend upwards of five months interning for a local or, on occasion, overseas production company.    Future plans call for more local student film crews to travel overseas to make video programs that will challenge them from a logistical, language or personal standpoint, and perhaps expand their outlook, creativity and problem-solving abilities in the process.

These opportunities are designed for Singapore citizens and permanent residents only, so as of now only international co-productions provide a means of foreign companies to leverage on funding programs offered by the MDA.

While the television documentary market appears to be robust, with additional production houses such as Mark Burnett Productions targeted to open in the future, how does the landscape bode for independent filmmakers? Tan Pin Pin, who has had a foot in both the independent and broadcast worlds, feels that “independent documentary production is thriving in Singapore; many self-financed personal passion projects have been made in the past year, i.e. Passabe, Diminishing Memories, Hero’s Journey, Kallang Wave, and more.

As for challenges: “Funding and finding quiet time to create and think and feel,” Tan notes. With audiences attending sold-out venues to view her personal documentaries such as Singapore Gaga and Invisible City, the forecast is that there will be ample room for both independent and broadcast nonfiction media to co-habit peacefully in the region for years to come.

Craig McTurk is an American filmmaker and lecturer who has taught documentary production at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore for nearly seven years. His work includes Street Songs, Tokyo Blues, Highway Courtesans and Satan & Adam. He has also served as a consultant for The Singapore Film Commission and the IDA.