Skip to main content

From Singapore with Love: Tan Pin Pin Brings Her Homeland to the Screen

By Sevara Pan

From Tan Pin Pin's 'Moving House.'

What is the role of a documentary filmmaker in a country that has been largely devoid of images of itself on the big screen? Acclaimed Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, who has tirelessly set her sights on the national identity of the Southeast Asian city-state, addressed this question, among many others, during her masterclass, which took place in the framework of last fall's International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (DOK Leipzig). The festival also paid homage to Tan, featuring more than a dozen works from her oeuvre, assembled into four programs.

Tan's adolescent years were marked by an absence of images of Singapore on the big screen. She grew up in the country that was then dominated by the Malay film industry. However, the Malay films made in the 1960s and 1970s that were "flickering on the television" at the time "never quite belonged to [her]," she confided. In the absence of images that inspired self-scrutiny, the Singaporean filmmaker made it her work to create her own archives. "That is why; I continue to run after trees being chopped down or emperors visiting Singapore, hoping to be able to create our own archive," Tan explained. The documentarian insists on keeping the production "reasonably small and affordable" in a bid to maintain the ownership of these archives, because "memory is resistance, memory is power."

Today, Tan envisions her role as a collector of images, "grasping at straws of trying to form [her] own identity" and that of the nation that is still in the process of becoming. Moving and rebuilding is "a way of life" in Singapore (as she states in her 2001 film Moving House), whose terrain has undergone a number of alterations, from the time when it was under the British rule (1946 - 1963), to its merger with Malaysia, to acquiring independence in 1965. In Moving House, Tan explores an unsettling facet of Singapore's reinvention. The film follows the Chew family, one of tens of thousands of Singaporean families who are forced to participate in the nationwide exhumation exercise to move the remains of their relatives from their graves to niches in a columbarium, in accordance with the government order that required the land for redevelopment. Some decades ago, Singapore, one of the world’s most densely populated nations, was transformed to accommodate the needs of its growing population, "Now it’s the dead who enjoy such modern accommodation," Tan confides in the film. When the sacred was being obliterated, Tan resorted to the camera to salvage the moment. In an earlier film that she also named Moving House, which chronicled her family’s journey as they faced the fate of thousands of others in their country, that moment was a minute of rest that the gravediggers took after they demolished her great-grandfather’s tombstone. Capturing this moment on film gave Tan the sense that "no matter what happened, nothing can violate it anymore, even if the tombstone is violated."

The filmmaker admits that anger and distress were an impetus to make her first Moving House. However, it was not what seems to drive the story and its characters. During the masterclass, moderator Olaf Moeller propounded the idea that her family's reaction to what many would consider a harrowing experience of unearthing one's long-deceased relatives was perhaps something "quintessentially Singaporean," to which Tan responded, "I was so shocked that everyone in the family was like, 'It is okay, the government needs the land. We have to sacrifice our part.' It was very gentle. And even now as I watch it, that gentleness stings. [...]. Maybe, that is the success of Singapore—or you could say, it is the failure of Singapore—that we have all imbibed the party line."

However, "little gestures of defiance"—as Tan has once put it—are found in each of her films. And they become ever more salient in scenes of everyday life, eschewing the grandeur and the bombast that official histories parade. When, as part of the commission (9th August 2006) by the National Museum of Singapore, Tan got hold of the ample archival footage stretching over four decades, she set to use archival footage as a tool to question the legitimacy of the current, or what she described during the masterclass as the "permanent" government. As she tapped into the 42 years of the National Day Parade footage, she laid bare what otherwise would have gotten lost in the pomposity of the annual ceremony: the unchangeability of camera angles all through four decades. "The government has not changed, the camera angles do not change either," Tan shrewdly remarked. And seeing that gleaming sameness in the country that has elevated itself to being an aspirational city-state was "very chilling."

Tan Pin Pin leading a masterclass at DOK Leipzig. Photo: Jana Milla Lipitz. Courtesy of DOK Leipzig

In Singapore GaGa (2005), which became the first Singaporean documentary to have a theatrical run, Tan turned to music and sound to probe the evolving sense of what it means to be a Singaporean. From a jingle of a wheel-bound woman who sells tissue paper outside a train station to the avant-garde artist Margaret Leng Tan, who plays a toy piano at Carnegie Hall, the filmmaker explored the country’s diverse soundscapes to learn about her country. When embarking on the project, Tan took an adventurous approach by making a list of people she wanted to meet over the course of a year and giving herself permission to shoot what she was compelled to, "without being too deliberate about it." Her venture led to an array of images "that just did not stick" at first, until one day she realized that she could structure her film not only around music, which ties these seemingly disparate characters together, but also around the emotion that the characters appear to share— "the sense of a need to justify how good [they are]."

Tan's oeuvre is undeniably a tribute to Singapore, a string of love letters in which she relentlessly tries to conjure up an image of the country that "could have been." In what became To Singapore, with Love (2013), the filmmaker traversed the world to meet Singapore's political exiles that embodied faint "alternatives of Singapore that could have been." The ban that ensued left Tan "devastated…When we were editing [To Singapore, with Love] late one night," she reminisced. "It finally hit me: 'What have I done? If I continue editing, I am not going to eat lunch in this town again.'" It was the moment of crossing the Rubicon for Tan, when she found herself braving the question, "Why am I doing this?...I am doing this to put images of Singapore on the big screen," the filmmaker asserted. "If that is what I am doing, then I should do what I am doing."

Sevara Pan is a Berlin-based journalist and film critic.