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Youth Meets Film: The Next Generation of Writers on Regional Cinema

Embracing Love: An Interview Piece with Ivan Tan

Ivan Tan’s first short film, Tadpoles, won the Jury Prize at the 66th Locarno International Film Festival back in 2013, being one of the only graduates from NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication (WKWSCI)  and Information to have gotten his film into a first tier international film festival and clinching the prize back home as a student, and the first Singaporean director to do that.

I (Andrea) remember watching that film as a freshman in WKWSCI and thinking to myself, if this is the standard of films we need to produce for our final year project, I am doomed. Imagine flooding an entire HDB flat for your graduating film. It took a lot of confidence to pull that off – and he did it. That aside, the story explored fractured family relationships and love, but it sadly represented the core of our fractured society in Singapore.

Ivan was then accepted by the prestigious National Film and Television School in the United Kingdom and produced his 2nd short film, A Bed Without A Quilt, which is in competition for the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition in Programme 2.

We were both taken by the film that kept us in a reflective state – and to both of us, the film meant something different. We knew that we had to talk to Ivan because it he created something beautiful that we tried to rationalise, but the poetry in his film didn’t allow us to do so.

Still from Ivan Tan's A Bed Without a Quilt.

Image Credit: A Bed Without a Quilt, dir. Ivan Tan, 2017

A Bed Without A Quilt follows 15 year old Eli as he passes an open field and becomes intrigued with a man digging in a hole. Over the course of an afternoon, Eli discovers an uncomfortable truth about his village amidst his sexual awakening. This speaks a lot about the society we live in and how we lack basic humanity of accepting people for who they are. Coming out of the closet, per se, is as good as digging your own grave, quite literally translated onscreen by Ivan Tan, evoking a sense of disappointment with the society that we live in.

“In the end nothing we can do or say in this lifetime will matter as much as the way we have loved one another” – Daphne Rose Kignma.

Andrea: The Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, in which A Bed Without a Quilt is a contender, exists in this realm of a ‘Southeast Asian’ association. What does a Southeast Asian (SEA) identity mean to you?

Ivan: I think I am Southeast Asian simply because of geographical factors. I am born in Singapore and Singapore happens to fall within SEA. To me, being a SEAn is one that I’m happy to identify with, but it should not define or restrict who I am or the films I make. One of the things I hate hearing most is about how my films are very Asian or even Japanese. Our shared humanity should be what connects us, not where we were born.

What I am more interested as a filmmaker is how I can tell the most human stories from Singapore. I have a love-hate relationship with this country but I do feel a certain sense of responsibility towards it. After years of making deeply personal films, I hope to be able to move on to films that address social issues more directly.

Image Credit: A Bed Without a Quilt, dir. Ivan Tan, 2017

Image Credit: A Bed Without a Quilt, dir. Ivan Tan, 2017

Sheoli: The ‘hole’ being dug, appears as a symbol, since it reflects back to the snail. What is the idea behind that? 

Ivan: The whole film started because I had an image of a man digging a hole stuck in my head. The only way I knew how to get rid of the image was to make a film about it. This is how my scripts start – from a single image.

The process of writing is the process of answering the image. I ask many questions about the image until the right one makes sense to me. For a long time, I couldn’t get the script to work. One day while I was swimming, I suddenly thought to myself – what if the man digging the hole was gay? And what if he was digging his own grave? And what if it was his own villagers that made him dig his own grave as a punishment for his sexuality? Once I ask the right question, a chain of questions is formed and the script surfaces.

As for the snail, I don’t think of symbols or metaphors consciously. I wanted to create an effect in the audience. I thought the snail would produce the intended effect, and so I shot it. Kieslowski puts it the best when he says, “for me a bottle of milk is a bottle of milk.”

Sheoli: You mentioned that your work draws on the notion of spirituality. Is the idea of spirituality explored this particular film? If so, how?

Ivan: My idea of spirituality is something that transcends logic and has the ability to move the human spirit in a deeply profound way. I don’t quite understand it myself, but I think people go to the cinema because they want to quench the thirst in their souls. They want to be moved, to be touched. It’s the reason I make films, and A Bed Without A Quilt is no exception.

I don’t really know how to explain how I do it because I’m not even sure if I’m successful to begin with. But if I had to pick 3 qualities, I would say the first,  stillness of the image, second, appealing to the senses, instincts, emotions and third, an honest, genuine concern for people.

Andrea: As a Singaporean, I cannot help but to draw parallels of the village in your film to Singapore society. To me, it seems like you are critiquing on the institutional perspective on homosexuality. Would you say this is accurate in the context of your film? 

Ivan: I wasn’t consciously thinking about Singapore when I wrote and made the film. But when I watched the film again recently I felt that a lot of my feelings towards Singapore went into the film. The sterile nature of our environment, the invisible repression, and of course, the social attitudes towards homosexuality.

Sheoli: The choice of location for your film made us curious. To us, it seems like the physical space  – the barren land and the muddy terrain – is a representation of the character’s state of mind. Is this the reason why you chose to film in that particular location?

Ivan: I think the physical space reflected more of my personal state of mind when I was writing and making this film. I really think that if you took a photograph of my psyche, that’s probably how it looks like. As you correctly pointed out, I was fascinated by stillness of the barren space and the chaos of the muddy terrain. I love this contradiction because if something is uncomfortably still, it’s usually because something deep is brewing beneath. Like the moments just before an earthquake unleashes chaos. The calm before the storm.

Secondly, I chose the location because it was a physically harsh environment. We were shooting in the thick of winter and temperatures were constantly below 0 degrees. I like putting my actors and my crew in an uncomfortable position because I feel it breaks their masks. I’m interested in what’s behind those masks.

*******

We have realised from this interview with Ivan Tan, how much that we has humans have to offer, to one another. Personally as Filmmakers, we also get to learn about implementation and execution of a thought that blossoms inside our heads.

Film is a very strong visual and auditory medium that effectively reaches out to a vast audience, affecting them emotionally, making them think.

I (Sheoli), have realised the importance of this, on hearing Lord David Puttnam speak in one of our seminars. He made us realise our strengths as filmmakers and artists and to what effect we can use it in order to speak a number of people. Ivan Tan has used this medium to be able to talk to the audience on a more personal, deeper level and given rise to several questions, one of the most pertinent being – “Is all the hate really worth it?”.

As much as the thought counts, we should be able to translate in absolutely any form. As artists, we should keep doing this, as long as there is at least one person listening. That is another important take-away from this short film.

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