SIFF 2008 - An Interview with Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak

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.

So far we’ve gone through a series of interviews with directors. Now we have someone taking on the producer’s role in a feature film shot in Cambodia. Lionel Chok’s name will be familiar to some who’s been following the prolific director’s works both on film and on the stage, and I’ve got the privilege of interrupting his busy schedule for this short interview session.

Stefan: Hi Lionel, you have quite a list of accomplishments and have been involved in various film related projects, ranging from short films to conducting workshops for aspiring filmmakers, and even organizing festivals. What made you decide to take on a producer's role for To Speak?

Lionel Chok: Thank you Stefan... Actually I like to challenge myself and take on many hats. To actually only write/direct/produce in anyone medium - to me - would only mean that I'm limiting myself. There are so many stories requiring different mediums, and there's so much one can do in various capacities: why not teach someone, who has a good story to tell, how to make films, or why not organize a different sort of a festival for others to open their minds and possibilities?

As such, I was open to taking on various things in different capacities, and as a result, find myself growing diversely and immensely. The producer's role for To Speak happened by chance.

Stefan: And that’s when you got to know writer-director Craig Ower, and decided to work together on this film project?

Lionel Chok: Yes. I staged a play called Threesome (check out my site at: 1magine, under plays) and happened to be invited for a radio interview with the then 938FM. It was Craig who was actually behind the console with another presenter called Nick - and the interview session went well. We got talking quite a bit after that interview, and then exchanged contacts.

Some time later, I started work on another one of my plays called Adultery and needed someone, well, that's exactly like Craig! So I caught up with him again and talked to him about it before he agreed to try it, and did really well!

Throughout the whole process of rehearsals, we managed to find lots of time to talk, and Tabitha (the old name of To Speak) developed and became what we know of it today, because I was simply captivated that such a simple, unique story could still exist without it already being made into a film! It seemed like an unfounded treasure to me!

S: Could you explain the significance of "Tabitha", which was as you mentioned the old name for To Speak. Why was it changed then? I believe it's also a Foundation program intricately linked to the film, if you could enlighten us on its role please? Is the film linked to the Foundation in any way?

LC: Tabitha - not only as the name for the Foundation Programme – it also means To Speak in the Khmer language. We decided to use the English translation because it's more accessible. Tabitha is the NGO organization that co-funded the film as well in terms of resources – manpower, meals, transport etc. and they even had houses built for the villages that were involved in the film

S: To Speak seemed to have taken quite a long route from set to screen. I note that the film was shot in Cambodia for about two weeks in 2005, and post production took almost 18 months to complete. What were the key challenges faced in getting the movie completed, and finally making its local premiere in a few days time?

LC: To Speak took forever in post (production) because we only had the money - Craig's personal finances actually - to shoot it, but not post-process it. I knew that ever since taking it on.

But I read many, many stories of how many independent US filmmakers did their thing:
Shoot first, edit a really solid offline, then pitch for completion funds and made it. So I decided to do the same. Thankfully we had really good stuff that moved many people emotionally.

Freddy, the General Manager of Infinite Frameworks who sponsored our entire post production after watching our offline admittedly had to resist the heart strings that were tugged.

But because we were sponsored - in all areas including audio - we had to wait for available resources, like free overnight color grading sessions, the 3 to 6 months audio mix; all to be done when our sponsors had time and resources available. I'm actually thankful it's done, really.

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?

LC: You don't hear this often enough but we still got a long way to go. Having the Singapore Panorama in SIFF is great but if it's not going to be an annual feature - then we would have taken 2 or even 3 steps back after this year.

The main problem we always have actually, despite what many 'professionals' and 'critics' say about our film scene, is not that we always don’t have funds or our stories are not good enough, etc.

The main reason I strongly feel, is that we don’t have one solid identity. All our neighbouring countries have such strong identities that they naturally support all their own works, despite having the same fair share of competition from US/Foreign imported films. And as we all know, we've given in to the predominantly inherent US influence (I'm guilty as charged - because I studied in NYU too!)

But having said so much - it still comes down to the question isn’t it - Do we have a Singapore film scene? To be honest, I think we do, although it's feels almost the same time after time. But the fact remains - if we all stop and do nothing about it - then we'll never have anything.

S: Your insights to the one solid identity is something that piqued my interest in asking, do you feel that by virtue we're not a homogeneous society, that it becomes a challenge to develop strong support for our works? Could that be cultivated in time to come, probably once we can sustain having a critical mass of films being produced on a regular basis? But I suppose our heterogeneous society also paves the way for very diverse movies getting made, like those in this year's Singapore Panorama showcase, in different languages, and some made in different lands too.

LC: Singapore is strangely very much like a city as New York but sadly, without its well known culture and identity, perhaps because of history, but definitely because of a lot of suppressed attempts by the government like the “No Singlish” (Singapore colloquial English), etc. As our films reflect a lot on our society and culture, this will inherently become a 'problem' unless of course the filmmakers choose to go on creating plot driven movies for the sake of making money, like Rule #1, as opposed to our cultural/societal stories, like the early ones from Jack (Neo) and Royston (Tan). Eric (Khoo) does it well by focusing on different, unique Singaporeans stories that withstand these identity issues and obviously, they resonant everywhere. Just my view and opinion of course.

S: Yes I believe we've read and heard about the No Singlish policy, but I always had the opinion that films which had to contain Singlish (no denying that we more often than not, lapse into that lingua franca in informal occasions) still can get through to an international audience via subtitling (accurately of course), just like any foreign film would have. Just to wrap, I suppose in building a critical mass of film output, it will have to include both commercial hits as well as art-house movies, as the former do provide some form of accessibility (like how Royston's 881 had probably introduced him to a wider audience base at least in Singapore), and Kelvin Tong and even Jack Neo building buzz about the capabilities of local filmmakers in overseas markets his well?

LC: I don’t think I can say much about what will constitute as an ideal critical mass of film output from Singapore, but all in all, if we continue this path of making / creating stories that neglects our identity, we're only going to be creating carbon copies of Hollywood type of films and stories. To Speak is a film that spoke all about the Cambodian identity but even though it's not my story but that of Craig's (the director), the thread we're working on is still the same - creating stories from identities of the landscape in which we're in, or through the characters that we use.

S: Agreed that we shouldn’t be having our films molded from the template of Hollywood’s (or any other film industry for that matter) but to just be able to tell our own stories, our way, or “to dream our own dreams”, as how festival director Philip Cheah puts it in the SIFF Trailer. Thanks for your time, Lionel!

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