The 3rd week of this year's edition of the Singapore Short Cuts saw a retrospective on Rajendra Gour, arguably a pioneer of independently-made Singapore short films, and an award winning one too. Having to open his showcase, Rajendra shared that he had started to make films when he was 25 years old, back in 1965, and advised that so long any film is made with spirit and soul, they will last the passage of time. And looking at the 4 short films presented, I couldn't agree more.
A Labour of Love - The Housewife
I liked this film a lot, in that Rajendra had a keen eye on issues that were raised in his short, issues which still ring true to this day. The short is as the title says, as we follow a housewife's routine, the daily, menial tasks of taking care of the home, as well as the children. While highlighting challenges faced, it also had a very heartwarming observation on the children of the household, with many earnest scenes on interaction, and you can really feel the love permeating through.
There were also a couple of scenes that set the era - the trishaw, and the outdoor street market, but one thing's for sure, the issues of the housewife faced in those days, are almost similar to the ones faced today. Time and again you do have the spotlight set on discussing how can one quantify, in monetary terms, the value that housewives contribute to society and economy, and perhaps, this short allowed for the reminder that they are important in "shaping the future generation", and that "her work must be appreciated".
My Child My Child
Sort of a quasi-sequel to A Labour of Love, My Child My Child specifically echoes the love of a mother for her child, as well as her hopes and even fears of the fact that her child might one day cast her aside. Like A Labour of Love, My Child My Child also had this heartwarming quality in it, and contains some scenes which were from the former as well, reused over here. Those who have been to the Haw Par Villa / Tiger Balm Gardens will find it a blast to see it depicted here in the short, especially those morbid, grotesque looking statues!
This is an experimental short, which featured some nifty effects and some extreme closeups of the eye. The "all seeing" eye explores pain and suffering, and alas, as Rajendra shared later during the Q&A, much of this short had already succumbed to deterioration brought about by time.
If the audience hadn't gotten enough of the scenes of Singapore of old, then Sunshine Singapore was the short worth waiting for. Playing like a musical montage piece, this short deserves to be watched on repeat for scenes that are no longer, and as I mentioned earlier, a visual treat for any historians or those born here in the last 20 years, to see how Singapore was once like. The music is catchy too, having this hypnotic beat to it.
Apparently almost every member of the audience who turned up today, had also decided to sit through the Q&A session after the screening. I suppose many were naturally curious about the shorts, and would like to learn more about them from Rajendra himself.
Zhang Wenjie: This is possibly the first time all 4 of Rajendra's shorts have been shown in a retrospective. What was the feeling like having watched them in front of an audience after more than 40 years?
Rajendra: I've never imagined this, given it's the first time they're shown in Singapore. I'm more than happy. Thank you.
Wenjie: Could you share how you first started making films independently. With the many filmmakers making their films now versus in the 60s, what was the environment of the time like?
Rajendra: In December 1964, I bought a small Bolex camera, which cost me 2 months salary. I could afford it because I was a bachelor - I could eat as I liked, and sleep wherever I liked, with all my money going into film! My first film was called "Mr Tender Heart", however the film is not in good condition now and cannot be projected. It's shot in black and white, with very little dialogue, and ran about 28 minutes. I acted as a poet in the film, to show the world as it is, and I used animal sounds to show people's jealousness, frustration and anger. All the animal sounds were produced by mouth by myself, and I wished I can produce them now for you!
I worked with RTS (Radio and Television Singapore) in the news department as senior film editor, and doing the news at that time, I was feeling bored. So I thought about filmmaking, and had 2 options. The first was to go to the USA to join the New York Film Institute to do my Masters, but it cost a lot of money. So the second option was, why not make my own films and learn from my own mistakes? I had many crazy, unconventional ideas, and dreams.
My second film was Eyes, and the original cut was 20 minutes long. I couldn't save all the footage. It was recorded with no dialogue, so that you can form your own interpretation. I had only one normal lens, and it was a great challenge making the film. It was difficult to keep the camera in focus, and I even tried using a magnifying glass to make the eye look bigger! I had a lot of fun, and had used my caretaker's eyes as they were very big! There were no effects done in the lab, except for one scene of superimposition, and one black and white shot. All other superimposition were done on camera, so you can imagine I had to take the shot, roll the film back, expose the film again and so on. I did too many takes, and it was hard to calculate. By fluke, I got about 70% of what I wanted. The part where the face was cracking, I had gone to a photo studio, and used an aluminum plate. I bent the plate at different angles to achieve the shots, and married them. Back then you had to improvise a lot, but now you have computers
The other challenge was how to show the man falling 10/11 floors. I had a camera box, made a hole in it, and devised a pulley. My friend ran with the rope, but instead of having the camera falling down, it went round! I was initially a little disappointed with the result, but maybe for a man falling down, he sees it that way! *chuckles* I had a one to two man crew accompanying me for Eyes. I liked Eyes, as it was from the heart, and from the mind.
The third movie I made was Sunshine Singapore. It was made over a number of years as I had to shoot sunrises. Most mornings were cloudy or rainy, but I managed to get some nice sunrise and sunsets. I had the music in my mind, and it was from the rhythm of the camera sway. I was actually warned by my wife not to stare at the shots as the sun rays were going into my eyes. The version you've seen today was from VHS, as the original film still needs money to restore. The shot of the military band was to show the regimental nature of Singaporeans, while the montage of the foreign banks was my imagining of the future of Singapore. My funds for the film got exhausted, because I got married! *chuckles*
One person had to work, while the other had to take care of the family, and the money I made went to family. Salaries for graduates at the time was about S#765, and I had to temporarily stop making films. I had a smart ploy though, and that was to make a film about the family. At the back of my mind was the story, and I had to convince my wife to be in it, and there was actually no need to act. There was no lighting, and I had only the normal lens. But I had the perfect setting. It took 5 years to make My Child My Child, based on things I see happening in the house, so there wasn't a real need to think of a plot. I have beautiful stories out of filming my family, and I did 2 films out of that.
I had wondered how to screen my films. You can only show your films to friends twice, and they'll tell you "that's enough"! *chuckles* I read Sight and Sound magazine, and researched a list of film festivals to send my films to. It was not easy as I had to send them by air, and it cost a lot of money. But my intention to send them was not to win awards, but I had done so, so that someone else can see my films. A Labour of Love - The Housewife, won a bronze medal at an American film festival, and BBC bought the rights to show My Child My Child. I got encouraged and with some money, I was tempted to make another film. I still have the original 16mm films, and if archived and projected, the colours will definitely turn out nicer.
Wenjie (to Karen): Perhaps you would like to talk about how you came across Raj's films?
Karen: Raj came to the Asian Film Archive as a volunteer, and had helped in some school talks. It was then we found out about his 16mm films. In the archival process, films have to be cleaned so that we can assess the quality of the film. Colour would have faded and there would be scratches, but there's also the "Vinegar Syndrome", where because of our climate, the film would emit a scent and would shrink the films, making them brittle. We can slow down the decay, but can't eliminate it. The cost of restoring about 1000 feet of a print, will cost about S$4-5K. We're hoping that by next year, we would have one print restored.
Karen (to Raj): What advice would you give to future filmmakers about preserving their films for another generation?
Raj: It's always good to keep the films, preserve them, and store them properly. You can look back at how life was then, the culture and feeling of the times, improvements, and if we are going in the right direction.
Q (to Raj): Are you still making films?
Raj: Yes, I'm making a lot of films in my mind and heart. I've lots of stories to tell, but now I don't want to put my own money to make them. I'm looking for sponsors, and I'm planning to make 2 films. I'm trying to get finances. One is about old age people, and the other about women. Women hhave been a pet subject of mine, because there's a of emotions about their lives and how it changed over the last 40 years. In the last 2 to 3 years, I've made documentaries for others.
Q: What was the indie film scene like in the 60s and 70s?
Raj: There was none as far as I can recall, for experimental films. There were many amateur filmmakers making 8mm films, but not on this scale.
Q: Did the awards make any impact in Singapore?
Raj: Unfortunately the movies were not appreciated in Singapore. Nobody bothers, unlike today, where you can get finances, or people to watch them. Sunshine Singapore was rejected by RTS at the time, but probably because back then, society was cautious about showing anything of this nature because of nation building.
Q: How do you reflect making films to your own narrative versus someone else's?
Raj: The main difference, you feel it more for your own, from the heart.
Wenjie then introduced Raj's son Sanjay, who was also in the audience.
Wenjie: For those who don't know, Sanjay was the little boy in Raj's films. How do you feel, watching yourself on the big screen now?
Sanjay: I feel the same; I've seen the films many times, and I guess it's better to recall those moments on film rather than from still photographs.
Photo Credits: Richard Lim
Next week will be the final week of this year's edition of the Singapore Short Cuts. Do remember to grab your ticket early, as we have Anthony Chen's Cannes Special Mention film Ah Ma, as well as 2 short films from each director of Solos - Loo Zihan and Kan Lume, and Boo Junfeng's Katong Fugue. See you next Saturday!