SIFF 2008 - An Interview with James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC

This year's Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), into its 21st edition, runs from 4th to 14th April, and features an unprecedented 13 local feature films and documentaries in a Singapore Panorama section.

I came to experience James and Lynn’s documentaries back in 2006 at a festival screening of Passabe, which explored the themes of justice, reconciliation and forgiveness through the eyes of ordinary villages in remote East Timor. My very first impression was that it was very courageous of them to venture into the road less travelled, and was obviously out of their comfort zone in Singapore. Then their next feature documentary, Aki Ra’s Boys, brought them out to the mine fields of Cambodia, and to see them document Aki Ra up close as he goes about defusing live mines was nothing short of mind-boggling!

The directing duo has definitely earned my respect and admiration. And I got pretty much excited about their Homeless FC project, which makes its local premiere in this year’s SIFF. Despite being overseas at this point in time, they managed to spare me a few moments for this online interview:

Stefan: Hi James and Lynn, I'm pretty excited to be able to finally catch Homeless FC when it makes its Singapore debut, after missing out on its World Premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival last year. I believe the film has travelled the world for close to a year now. Would you like to share with us how the reception toward it had been so far?

James and Lynn: The reception's been good so far. We recently won an award in Hong Kong, which was very unexpected.

It's nice to be able to connect with your audience, to have people from all over the world write to you after that, asking after the main characters in your film.

Stefan: And speaking of which, have you managed to screen Pasasbe in Passabe for the town folks who were featured in your documentary, and how are Boreak and Vannak from Aki Ra's Boys doing?

James and Lynn: Unfortunately, not yet. We tried to go back in early 2006 but the river was just impassable. We did show it on the near side of the river though. The turnout was pretty amazing - thousands, literally, thousands of people crowded into a school hall for the screening. It was clear to see that six years after the massacre, emotions were still very raw. People clearly wanted some kind of justice, or at the very least, an acknowledgement of their suffering from Indonesia and from their own government.

Vannak, we're told, is doing very well at school. Boreak, last we heard, is also studying hard. He's much more settled now. Not so naughty and not so focused on skipping school all the time! He's grown up quite a bit.

S: We have a handful of local filmmakers who are based overseas, and no doubt you are one of them, bringing back interesting insights of subject matters from the lands you film in! Your documentaries to date have been set in places outside of Singapore - Passabe dealt with subject matter from East Timor, Aki Ra's Boys from Cambodia and Homeless FC from Hong Kong. How do you decide on the subject matter to film about in these countries, is it based on picking up vibes from the countries you've been to, to explore the road less travelled? Is there a method to sniffing out engaging stories to tell, or do you already have the subject matter in mind, before hitting the road to the countries you've made documentaries in?

JL: We tend to spend quite a lot of time in pre-production before deciding to go ahead with an independent project. We have to be sure a film is going to be worth making before packing up and heading out. We might research up to five different ideas, but ultimately pick just one to turn into a feature documentary.

S: But I do suppose that the other ideas will also be developed at some point in time? Have you had an idea where you really wanted to turn into a feature, but constraints such as budget or other restrictions had to put it on (temporal) hold?

JL: Not really, actually. If there's a story we really really want to do, we'll just bite the bullet and fund it ourselves. It's always a struggle but we've learnt to strike a balance between doing commissioned pieces (which help pay the bills), and independent projects.

S: Have you considered making a documentary in Singapore anytime soon?

JL: Yes. Our current project, The Shortest Man in the Village who can Soar Like an Eagle, is partly set in Singapore. We're also researching a few other ideas.

S: Now that sounds interesting! Back to Homeless FC, which I've read from your blog that unfortunately the original website has been squattered on! How did you get to know the Dawn Team, and what was the experience like filming something which involves a deal of unpredictability like sports? After all they are taking part in the Homeless World Cup in Cape Town, and I suppose with filming a tournament, anything goes! (No, please don't tell us how it ends! We want to root for them all the way during the movie!) :-)

JL: I got to know Wai Tung, the social worker organizing the team, when I went for a TV shoot in Hong Kong in 2003. I spent a day filming him at work and he showed me a side of Hong Kong I'd never seen before. After the shoot, we kept in contact, and when I heard that he was organizing a Homeless Football team, both James and I thought we absolutely had to find out more. We flew in for a two-day meeting with Wai Tung and the team, and then a month later, packed up and moved to Hong Kong.

S: From the trailer, all the Dawn Team players seem to have certain charisma about them. What was the experience like in documenting their individual stories, given that they are real people with real issues, folks who have fallen by the wayside, but are looking forward to a new life through working at fulfilling their hopes and dreams?

JL: It was very rewarding but also very challenging. We started filming in January 06 but only used footage from June onwards. The first six months or so were spent getting to know the players, really winning their trust, getting them used to the camera... getting them to ignore the camera. The players' stories take some unexpected twists and turns. It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for all of us. But if anything, we hope the film will help overturn some pre-conceived notions about the homeless.

S: And I'll be asking all filmmakers in this interview series the same last question, what do you currently feel about the Singapore film industry (if we can already start to call it so!) at this point in time, given that the SIFF has finally enough material to come up with a Singapore Panorama section, with an unprecedented vast spectrum of 13 features and documentaries making their respective premieres in Singapore?

JL: It's great to see so many Singaporean films at the festival this year. It'll be even better if there was more official support for the SIFF!

S: And having more local audiences supporting local films too! Thanks for your time James and Lynn, hope to meet up with you soon in Singapore, and again, I can’t wait to see The Dawn Team in action!

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