Some time in late 2008 or 2009 I printed a copy of my student film on to a tape, put it in a bubble wrap-lined envelope and sent it from New Zealand all the way back home to Singapore for consideration at the Singapore International Film Festival.
My film was terrible and naturally wasn’t accepted into the short film competition section of the festival. But I later found a programme containing a short blurb about a short film by Kirsten Tan, which had made it into the competition.
My Microsoft Word tried to autocorrect that last sentence to ‘Kirsten Han’. I guess you can’t blame it – it seems remarkable that a country as small as Singapore has produced two Kirstens, not too far apart in age and with rhyming surnames, and both film school graduates to boot.
Thus began years of occasional congratulations for the success of film projects I had no part in, while Kirsten Tan was subjected to comments about articles she had never written. Facebook exacerbated the problem – we have, at the time of writing, a whopping 62 mutual friends, which means that tagging errors are rife.
“I feel like I’ve known you quite a long time,” she said as we sat down for dessert the first – and only – time we met for lunch in October last year. It felt like an interview would be too stilted, so we ended up just chatting over mango puddings and water, trading stories about poor choices made on film sets.
“How do you pronounce your name?” was one of my first questions. The name Kirsten comes with multiple pronunciations, from “Kurs-turn” in the US to “Keerstern” in Sweden. Growing up in Singapore with this name, I’d been called everything from “Christina” to “Number 3” (when the teacher just gave up and referred to my number on the register).
She’d had the same experience. “In Thailand they would call me ‘Curtain’,” she said. “Now I answer to anything that sounds like it has a K and a T in it.”
We might have had similar name woes, but our entries into filmmaking took different paths; while my parents were happy to let me figure things out for myself, Kirsten’s parents weren’t all that happy about her choice.
“When I first wanted to go into filmmaking [my parents] were terrified,” she recalled. “I was fighting and it was very hard for me to talk any sense into it. They have no artist friends, they had no reference to the arts at all in their lives.”
Her parents insisted that she get a university degree after her O Levels. As there was no film degree programme in Singapore at the time, Kirsten got a degree in Literature before going to Ngee Ann Polytechnic to study film. The films she made there started a career that has taken her to Korea, Thailand and New York. Last year, she was awarded the Young Artist Award at a ceremony in the Istana.
“Over the course of 12 years I think they have come to terms with it,” she said of her parents. But her parents’ concerns have also been somewhat prophetic. “At first they threw out very epic lines like, ‘Do you want to be a beggar your whole life? Do you want to be begging money from everywhere?’ In hindsight it’s pretty true… I’m begging money from everywhere all the time!”
Funding is a major issue for most artists all over the world, and – like so many other Singaporean practitioners – Kirsten has relied largely on state-dispensed monies. “I usually fund my films through the MDA [Media Development Authority].” She shrugs. “If not enough I’ll top it up… That’s why no savings one!”
But getting funding from the government has its own problems. The state chooses projects to fund based on their own goals, be it “nation building” or as an investment to raise Singapore’s profile at international film markets. Past incidents have shown that works too challenging of the national narrative, or aren’t in line with the state’s self-imposed values, can be penalised through access to establishment support. The hand that giveth can, and will, also taketh away – especially when that hand is the MDA, who functions both as a funder and censor.
“It’s very interesting because Singapore has one of the strongest arts funding that I know,” she said. “I would always complain that the government doesn’t support the arts, until I went overseas and realised that not many countries actually have a governing board that sort of doles out money… And so it’s great that they are pumping in money, but at the same time I’m not sure how I feel about how we have to have the arts as a kind of ambassador, as a kind of packaging for the country, to make it more attractive. It’s a strange place to be.”
This was partly why Kirsten didn’t expect to get any state funding for her last short film, Dahdi, which touches on the Rohingya refugee crisis and Singapore’s position on accepting refugees. Although she ultimately did get some money from the MDA, she concurrently launched a crowdfunding campaign to make sure the project would be supported somehow.
“Crowdfunding is quite a common thing in the US. I started to discuss it with my Singaporean friends, and they were like, ‘Please, Singaporeans confirm will not donate one.’ But in the end 50 per cent [of the funds raised] were from Singapore. So I feel like people actually do care,” she said.
After catching glimpses of behind-the-scenes photos and production stills from her Facebook page, I finally watched Dahdi at an almost-packed screening of Kirsten’s work hosted by visual arts centre Objectifs. Set in and shot on Pulau Ubin, the film tells the story of a Rohingya girl and an elderly resident of the island, their relationship unfolding only through glances and body language.
Kirsten was inspired to make the film after Singapore turned away a ship carrying rescued refugees in 2012. “Around the same time there was a Gallup poll that was like, ‘Singapore is the richest, most expensive country, but then the press release was ‘oh we lack resources to help these people’. I felt like I needed to do something.”
Making Dahdi involved returning to Singapore and building a network almost from scratch. Kirsten described the process as “one of the hardest projects I’ve had to do”.
Although it’s not far from the mainland, Ubin has managed, so far, to remain largely untouched by Singapore’s rampant development. Its elderly inhabitants live their lives happily cut off from the bustling concrete jungle, and – particularly after an eviction scare in 2013 – aren’t eager for any outside attention.
“They are so suspicious of anyone with cameras, because they think you’re the press, and then they thought that we were with the government. It’s not that they don’t like the government but they just want to avoid the topic, because they just want to be left alone,” Kirsten explained.
Convincing the residents of Ubin to let her use the island as a location was therefore a long drawn-out affair, requiring multiple visits to speak with them (especially since they didn’t own mobile phones). The effort paid off; Dahdi was not only shot on Ubin, Kirsten also cast an elderly lady in the village to play the main character.
“I really liked her because she exhibited a lot of imagination,” she said of her star. “Like when I told her the story, she was like, ‘No lah, the ah ma won’t do this!’”
Once the film was complete, Kirsten organised a screening on the island itself, inviting all the residents to see the finished product.
“I realised when you show non-professional actors the film they are never actually looking out for the story. They’re just looking out for their friends,” she said with a grin. “So I had this screening where I invited all of them, so there were a lot of those Ubin uncles and aunties, and when one of their friends walked by [in the film], then they would all clap. They didn’t care about the film at all but it was a very fun experience!”
I didn’t recognise any of the extras in the film myself, and so could settle back and take it all in at the screening. What I saw was essentially a simple story, but one that quietly, honestly, pointed out our shared humanity. The interaction between the two main characters, and the dilemma that follows, brings questions that we should all ask ourselves – what would we do if we encountered someone in need of shelter and aid on our doorstep? What should we do?
Dahdi’s narrative is served up straight, a departure from some of Kirsten’s earlier, more surreal works. Looking back, she often wonders if that had something to do with the environment in which she worked and grew as a filmmaker.
“I remember one of our very early classes [at Ngee Ann Polytechnic] was when they actually went through the Political Film Act with us. I feel like even at the very infant stage, starting to learn about filmmaking, that was sort of put in your head. So then I was just wondering, is that why, just very naturally, I veered more towards a surreal end, because then if you’re critiquing stuff it goes under the radar,” she said. “Later on when I went to the US, I realised that the camera can be a tool in some ways, a more direct tool for social change.”
Ready for her next project (and adventure), Kirsten is now in Thailand prepping for her very first feature film, Popeye. She’s not ready to release too many details, but tells me that “it’s a road trip film with an elephant”.
When I checked in with her recently to check some details and get an update on her progress, she was deep in pre-production, and had already cast her elephant star. Not bad for someone who everyone thinks is named Curtain.