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[Inc-terview] In Time To Come documentary filmmaker, Tan Pin Pin!

By Say Peng  /  04 Oct 2017 (Wednesday)

Photo credit: BFG Media

It seems not too long ago that Singapore's most well-known documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin was in the public consciousness. Her 2013 documentary on political exiles, To Singapore, With Love, was denied rating by the Media Development Authority, in effect banning it. Her subsequent appeal to get her film classified was turned down. The authorities feared that the film would undermine national security. The banning of To Singapore, With Love incited heated public debate about censorship in Singapore. Amidst the controversy, Tan was already at work on her next film, her fourth full-length work, In Time To Come, which was conceived before To Singapore, With Love and would take her a total of four years to shoot.    

InCinemas speak to Tan about In Time To Come, which world premiered at Visions du Réel, a renowned documentary film festival in Switzerland, and was subsequently screened at several other international film festivals.

InCinemas: What is the film about and why did you make it?
Pin Pin: When I was making Invisible City in 2006/7, I was introduced to the film archive of Dr Ivan Polunin who owned very rare colour footage of Singapore in 50's and 60's. He had a lot of footage of religious rituals, ethnic weddings, but the footage that caught my eye was a scene where illegal hawkers were being chased off by police. It constituted about 3 mins out of 30 hours of footage, yet I was riveted to this clip mainly and not the others he thought to film.

I asked myself, what would someone who would be alive 50 years from now be interested to see of present day Singapore? In this film, I thought to try to make a film framed as such. I focused on rituals of everyday life. After you watch this film, you have to forget it, and watch it 50 years later to let me know if I guessed correctly what your future self would be interested in. 

InCinemas: What are some specific challenges that you faced in the making of the film?
​Pin Pin: We shot from 2012-2016, a long period even by my standards. the production period was long because we had to find opening and closing ceremonies, daily assemblies, mosquito fumigation, time capsules being prepared, fire drills to shoot amongst other events. The editing took a year, longer than my usual too. Since this film is guided more by tone and rhythm rather than by a "story" there more permutations we had to explore. 

InCinemas: The film feels like it could be 60 minutes long as well as 2 hours or 5 hours long. Also, some shots such as the shot of the polar bear and of the Bangladeshi migrant workers resting under the trees feel like they could have appeared at any point in the film. Can you share with us your thought process behind how the film was edited and structured? 
​Pin Pin: We tried out many different combinations of order of scenes, moved scenes around, as well as shot lengths,  and at that time, this length felt like the right length. At the premiere, some one told me that he felt the film was very immersive, and could have been longer. I see where he is coming from. Maybe another edit next time. 


InCinemas: Now that the film is completed, are there any rituals that you wish you had included in the film? Also, were there any rituals you filmed but decided not include in the final cut of the film?
​Pin Pin: We had shot the preparation and installation of four other time capsules (including the lost National Stadium one) which did not make the cut. In the end this film wasn't about time capsules per say, it was more about Singapore through its patterns of crowd behaviour.

InCinemas: Which shot in the film is the most personal for you?
​Pin Pin: There is a scene of people dancing as fake snow fell at a shopping centre during X'mas season. I am always struck by the exuberant mood of the scene when I see it.

InCinemas: The film features a heightened and, at times, surreal soundscape. Can you talk about the sound design behind the film?
​Pin Pin: We found that splicing footage of very deliberate and ritualistic preparations of the time capsule together with our wide shots of daily rituals gave the film an otherworldly, strange yet familiar tone. In the edit, the past, present and future seemed to collapse together, giving the film a sci-fi bent. When this possibility opened up, we pushed the angle in the sound design. The film then became a surprising journey in and out of different time spaces, sometimes two spaces at once, a journey that is never signposted. Like most films of this nature, we glimpsed the film’s nature through the long process of editing, a glimpse that become more concrete and sharpened during the sound design of the film.

InCinemas: How difficult was it for In Time To Come to secure theatrical distribution at Filmgarde? Can you share with us your distribution plans after the theatrical run at Filmgarde?
​Pin Pin: This film, more than any of my other films, IN TIME TO COME has to be seen and heard in a cinema. I wanted the Singapore audience to have access to the full cinema experience that festival goers overseas had in the film festivals we attended. We worked hard to find a space for the film to be shown here. When we showed the film to exhibitors FilmGarde, they said 'yes' immediately. We are very grateful for that. This is the first long film of mine that I have shown in a mainstream cineplex and it is a privilege to have this opportunity. Both Singapore GaGa and Invisible City had theatrical runs at the Arts House. I will be looking for more big screen opportunities to show IN TIME TO COME after the Filmgarde run.

InCinemas: Which documentary filmmaker has most influenced the way you think about documentary cinema's aesthetics and form?
​Pin Pin: I was influenced by photographer Robert Frank's book, The Americans, when I edited the film, his recurring motifs and way of seeing. I also looked at the work of Steven Shore, Nguan and Lucas Jodogne, the latter two are based in Singapore photographers whose work I was looking at too. 

InCinemas: Can you share with us the specific struggles faced by documentary filmmakers in Singapore and what you think can be done to address them? 
​Pin Pin: I don't think in terms of documentary or fiction, for me it is all light moving on the screen. There is only good film and there is bad film. Funding structures can do more do cater to smaller scale projects, especially projects that are not necessarily narrative. and I encourage programmers to continue to adventurous to grow the audiences appetite for diverse genres, formats, and points of view.

InCinemas: What advice do you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
​Pin Pin: Jill Godmillow has a great piece called Kill the Documentary as we know it which lists 12 things to look out for for documentary makers, it says everything I want to say. [Here's the link to the piece.]

In Time To Come opened at Bugis+'s Filmgarde Cineplex on 28th September and is currently showing after selling out multiple screenings. Catch it before it goes!
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