The talk in Singapore is all about the award-breaking film Ilo Ilo. But there is another Singapore film, Eclipses, that is quietly making waves.. The man behind this film, Daniel Hui, talks about being the first Singaporean filmmaker to snag the Pixel Bunker Award in Lisbon and what inspired him to produce the non-scripted Eclipses.
Q. What’s the most valuable thing you’ve gained through making films?
A. Listening. I know this sounds weird because film is a visual medium but the great filmmakers are the ones who listen to what goes on around them.
When I started making films, I was too preoccupied with talking. I badly wanted to express myself through my films so much that those films didn’t end up making a point. Nowadays, filmmaking is about positioning myself in society, culture and history, and that means taking a step back to observe and listen to what goes on around me. It is through listening that I am able to see and understand things clearly.
Q. What inspired you to be a filmmaker and who do you look up to as your mentor?
A. I chanced upon filmmaking through writing. Filmmaking is an extension of what I was previously doing.
I wanted to understand how producers think about cinema, so I immersed myself in filmmaking. Those little experiments became an obsession that are both physical and unpredictable.
Yasmin Ahmad helped me a lot when I first started making films. We were already close before I made anything; when I told her I was toying with the idea of making a film, she pushed me to do it. Until today, she continues to inspire me, even though our films are completely different. She encourages me to pursue my own path, to be honest with myself and not to be afraid of doing what I feel is necessary or right.
Q. What was the first thing that came to mind when you were announced winner of the Pixel Bunker Award for International New Talent? How did you feel about it?
A. I was shocked. When I arrived in Lisbon, I had only one thing in mind: to watch as many films I could. It was only a few days before the end of the festival that I found out that Eclipses was in the competition. It was just a crazy, crazy trip. I was really happy with the reception of our film in Lisbon. The two screenings were almost full, and the encore screening was really well-attended. It’s a huge encouragement to young filmmakers like me to see people responding to the film so well and engaging in intense conversations about cinema and Singapore.
Q. Where did you get your inspiration to produce Eclipses? How long did it take you and your team to produce the 103-minute feature film?
A. When I was making Eclipses, I thought it would be the last film I would make. I desperately wanted to show everything I could about Singapore. The original idea was for it to be a four-hour long film! Thankfully I decided to trim it down and focus on my family members and the people I see. I wanted to replicate something that happened to me – when Yasmin suddenly passed away, I was devastated. She was a close friend and mentor. I couldn’t see anything outside of my own grief. As time passed, I began to see the struggles of the people around me and through that I began to come out of my hermetic world to interact with the world at large. And so I wanted to replicate that experience in cinema. I started out with a fictional story about a woman losing her husband, and gradually pulled back to show the real lives of the people around her. I wanted to create a film where there are no supporting characters – each person, and even each landscape, is important. It took me one year to produce the film.
Q. Why did you choose to do away with scripting for Eclipses?
A. As I went along making films, I got more and more uncomfortable with being the sole dictator on the set. I became very bored of listening to my own voice. And so when I made my last non-scripted film Rumah Sendiri, I found that filmmaking could be so much more exciting when I listened to what others say.
The fictional parts of Eclipses were made with my collaborators, Lim Lung Chieh and Vel Ng. They were very much present during the process, and the script of the first half organically evolved through conversations (even arguments) we had.
Q. What message(s) about life do you wish to convey through Eclipses?
A. I don’t have any messages and I don’t think I can make films that convey only one message. Maybe it’s because I like things to be complicated. I would be happy if someone were to tell me they got many messages, even contradictory ones through Eclipses. I think that cinema is such an ambiguous medium – images are already inherently ambiguous and polysemic, and when they are put together, they become like multiple shards of a broken mirror reflecting light in an enclosed room. I feel really uncomfortable when a filmmaker tries to straitjacket his/her images to fit a narrative. I try very hard not to do that because that is when a film loses its life.
Q. What changes do you hope to see in Singapore’s cinema culture?
A. I really hope to see more support for adventurous local films. There is a good amount of people who support local cinema, and there are quite a few people who support more experimental cinema, but somehow these two groups are mutually exclusive. I don’t understand why. There seems to be a certain set of expectations when it comes to a local film – it must be colloquial, narrative-driven, unobtrusive etc., and you can meet with great hostility if you venture outside these boundaries. I think because of that, there is this huge fear in local cinema. I really hope to see a more adventurous local cinema, one that pushes cinema to its limits and questions dominant ideologies, a cinema that can articulate indigenous concerns in an indigenous manner. And for that, we need strong support for these types of films.