Filmed during Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2015, documentarians Chew Chia Shao Min and Joant Úbeda set out to interview the island nation’s ordinary residents (citizens and foreign workers alike) to gather the holistic, humanist perspectives underneath the country’s sanitized public image. The end result was Sementara, an outstanding observational documentary that earned the Audience Choice Award at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) last year.
Through their unhurried, unjudgemental conversations with regular people from a variety of different backgrounds, the filmmakers engendered enough trust to get their diverse subjects to share intensely personal stories and unvarnished thoughts on sensitive issues like religion, race, sexuality and identity. It’s this open-minded approach that makes Sementara such a rich time capsule of Singapore’s protean DNA, piecing together the subjectivities of those struggling on the margins alongside broader mainstream biases.
Ahead of the film’s wide release at The Projector, Popwire spoke with both Chew Chia Shao Min and Joant Úbeda to better understand how their film took shape, their nonfiction influences, and how they got so many strangers to open up to them.
How did the idea for Sementara originate?
Shao Min: We were inspired by documentaries like Le Joli Mai, San Soleil, Baraka, and Samsara. Joant and I re-watched those films and had many conversations in the months leading up to principal photography that helped to define what we wanted to see on screen in Sementara. Early on we placed an outsize importance on rhythm and pace. We both had a strong intuition for how the film should flow.
Joant: Yes, discovering Chris Marker was something I won’t ever forget. What is possible with a documentary is flipped on its head when watching Sans Soleil and Le Joli Mai for the first time. It was the exact inspiration we needed.
Why pick the Golden Jubilee as the event to backdrop your exploration of Singapore and its people?
Shao Min: Because the film is so fluid, we wanted to have a clear framework to work within. We had anchored ourselves in space by limiting the scope to Singapore and its islands, and we were looking for something historic to anchor ourselves in time. Anniversaries are one way that we collectively take stock of time passing and so the Golden Jubilee was a natural choice.
Joant: And also, it was just the right time and right space for Shao Min and I to meet and go on this wild adventure with filmmaking. Of course, this all happened when a lot of pivotal plot points in Singapore were unfolding. SG50, LGBT discussions, race, and even the passing of LKY.
What was the process like for selecting and approaching the subjects in your interviews?
Shao Min: We found most of our interview subjects through happenstance, and 90% of them on the shoot day itself. Either of us would spot someone who had carried themselves in an interesting way as they did something entirely ordinary and then I would usually approach them. I simply asked them if they had a few minutes to chat and quickly fell into conversations. A lot of the time conversations started before the camera was set up. Many of them lasted a surprisingly long time.
Later on we were conscious of wanting to find interviewees who could provide an alternative view to a subject that we had already covered.
Joant: A part of this journey was to find gems in the chaos. In the hustle and bustle of the city or even in the quietest of places. I feel that we chose based on simple observation of the space we were in.
A lot of your subjects shared intensely personal stories and perspectives. How did you establish trust with them?
Shao Min: We had a list of carefully curated interview questions before we started shooting, but the moment we were out in the field that list quickly fell by the wayside. I find that most people want to be heard. They have feelings and opinions that they are eager to voice. When I let them direct the course of the conversation, there was a lot that they were comfortable sharing. At the same time, it wasn’t about giving people a soap box to stand on. I tried to be the best listener I could be, which to me means parking my judgement and being attuned and responsive. Mostly I was led by my curiosity.
Joant: When you put priority on the comfort of your subject, you do away with unnecessary equipment that may intimidate said subject. We had a bare bones setup. Camera, monopod, and microphone. But most importantly, a willing and listening ear.
Was there any footage you really wanted to include but couldn’t?
Shao Min: Hours and hours.
Joant: The first rough cut was four hours long. But we felt keeping the film under two hours was the right choice. Maybe one day we’ll release some deleted scenes. There are some stories people shared that still should get out there somehow. Maybe through a different medium.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in the making of Sementara?
Shao Min: Having patience for the process. It’s been a long journey.
Joant: I guess a more relatable challenge was the self-funding of this project. Our vision is very precious and we didn’t want any influence to alter that vision. No government assistance, no grants where gatekeepers can sway things toward another way. So sacrificing time and money for this was definitely a challenge.
But one challenge that may not be so relatable is dealing with self-censorship. How much should we show? If conflict and controversy exists in the real world, should we be afraid of showing it? I’m glad we stayed strong and put it out how we wanted it. Sorry, to those under 18 though. Hope you can convince your parents to go and watch it with you!
Did you learn anything that shocked or surprised you about Singapore (or Singaporeans) during the filming of this documentary?
Shao Min: I didn’t expect Singaporeans to be so open and vulnerable with me. I’m really grateful that they gave their time and shared their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes after an interview, our subjects would thank us! That always caught me off guard because in my mind the direction of gratitude should rightfully be from us towards them. It was wonderful and unexpected to have that be reciprocated.
Joant: I agree with Shao Min. One thing I do love about this film is how authentic everyone featured is. You don’t really see that kind of stuff here when people give interviews on camera.
When structuring the documentary, was there ever a consideration towards adding voiceover narration? Or was the observational approach the goal from the beginning?
Shao Min: We assumed that there would be some amount of voiceover but as the editing process evolved we never found the need for it. At the same time, the observational approach was definitely always the goal.
Joant: Voiceover was a possibility. But we realized it should be a last resort when getting our vision across. Observational documentary was definitely the aesthetic we pursued, as we felt it was the most genuine approach to something like this.
We also used the observational sequences as guided meditations to digest what was said in interviews before. Similar to how you take the bus home after a conversation or a long day at work. Even during the interviews, we let things run. We let outside elements invade the frame.
Why the five year gap between it’s filming and release?
Shao Min: We only had one year to work on the film full time. In 2016 I left for film school and Joant started a full time job. There were stretches of time when the film was left fallow. In the end I think it was a blessing in disguise. Sementara is a very reflective film and time is an essential ingredient in being able to reflect. Also I think it would have hit the audience differently if we had released it earlier. With some distance we are able to appreciate the Singapore of five years ago with more clarity.
Joant: We had aspirations of releasing it much much earlier. Maybe even in the short form. However, we were advised to make it into a feature and I think we knew it in our hearts that was the best approach. Like I said earlier, besides life getting in the way in general, this was a vision we wanted to protect all the way through. That required self-funding–which isn’t always the fastest route to completing something.
How has the Singapore of 2021 changed from the Singapore of 2015?
Shao Min: It’s hard to answer that question because COVID-19 has changed so much for everyone all over the world. At this point in time we don’t know what the long term effects of the last year will be. When the dust settles, 2015 will probably feel even more distant than it does now.
Joant: In the film, Singapore was constantly changing. Constantly being molded into something else. And though things are different between then and now in terms of infrastructure and technology, I feel it’s exactly the same as well. Constantly molding into something else. Into something new. All the while people continue trying to navigate the changing landscape.
Sementara opens at The Projector on April 11th. Click here for ticketing.