NATALIE PANG interviews JUAN FOO, a 12-year veteran in the film and media business. His works include Dirty Laundry (2002) and Perth (2005).
Natalie: How is the concept of reality important to you as a producer? Do you think that it is essential that films should adopt realism to tell their story?
Juan: I think film is always about portrayal and portrayal has certain levels of responsibility to show what people can identify with. As filmmakers, you always fall back on something people can identify with. Ultimately, I think that a good film is about how it can connect with people and how it can interpret each and every one of our perceived realities. Reality also means emotions. What do you feel like at that moment in time? How does watching a film reflect your own reality and your own problems and your own emotions?
People can ask “How about fantasy films or animation? If you look at all of them, those are mainly genres and those are just the differences of the same.
Natalie: Have you ever used real life examples in your filmmaking? Have you used people around you as inspiration or as muses?
Juan: Yes, all the time. The films that I have made, like Perth and even Voodoo Nightmare: Return to Pontianak, have a certain level of reference points in reality. I think filmmaking is an observational and interpretational exercise. You will definitely glean a lot from what’s around you. No doubt, film marries society, society marries film. You see money and family issues in the films precisely because they are all represented in society. Filmmakers generally tap into reality although they may interpret it differently.
Natalie: You were talking about animation being a genre. Waltz with Bashir is made through the means of animation. What are your thoughts on this animated documentary? Do you think it would be any less realistic than a conventional live-action documentary?
Juan: As a form, animation gives the film a very palatable buffer to the audience. [Spoilers ahead] If you watch Waltz with Bashir, the last scene is in fact the actual massacre. Thus it is ever more powerful because everything prior to that is sort of washed and bathed in animation. It is stylistic and enthralling but has that undertone of reality. Animation gives the film a buffer and it is a very palatable buffer to the audience because it is something they can see and enjoy; it’s slightly more colourful and tangented out from the reality that we know.
A lot of filmmakers have actually used animation as a buffer. Persepolis is an interesting example. If it was made into a live-action film, I would think that it may be even less powerful because there is isn’t a stream of candidness, whereas if it’s done in an animation, there is that candid element there. It makes the whole autobiography even more bittersweet.
Natalie: In Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones are obviously aware of the cameras and being filmed. Do you think that the subject of the documentary would be any less authentic; that they would portray the image that the audience would want to see as opposed to their “real” self?
Juan: It’s a tricky thing to define awareness, especially if you’re talking about documentary filmmaking. I think any form of filmmaking is always about what kind of voice you want to portray. Once you are aware, what are you going to portray? It contradicts with documentary filmmaking because documentary is observational. It boils down to the documentary filmmaker’s purpose or point of view. As you’ve said, The Rolling Stones are aware that they’re being filmed. They’re very aware of any form of showmanship. Whether or not that is reality to them, it’s questionable to whether it is reality to the viewer.
Natalie: Zhang Ke Jia blends fiction and reality in 24 City. Joan Chen acts alongside real life people who are interviewed and filmed documentary-style. How do you feel about this method of sending the message across?
Juan: I guess it’s an interesting filmmaking approach to do a mish-mash. I think it’s about how things unfold in front of the camera. It is interesting to see how this mix of professional and non-professional, of fiction and non-fiction impacts the audience. Once again, it’s about believability. That is the whole shebang about cinema: how believable is it based on the portrayals you have. There are people that believe that there is a world of the Lord of the Rings. There are also people that believe in a lot of documentaries. It is how the filmmaker makes it believable, be it a documentary or a fiction film.
Natalie: Russian Ark is a 96 minute continuous shot. How do you think it contributes to the cinema goer’s cinematic experience?
Juan: I think it is a cinematic feat because if you treat the camera as an eye – imagine not blinking your eye for 96 minutes. That’s the effect. If you blink, you’re going to miss something important. I guess from a filmmaking point of view, to make a film without any cuts for 90 minutes is really crazy. To watch it unfold is already reason enough because we’ll be going “oh my god they really did it”.
Natalie: Would you ever want to be involved in a film like Russian Ark, where it is a major technical feat?
Juan: Russian Ark had the full support of the technical, cultural people, production and creative people; because they understood the value of it. Russian Ark is not your typical Hollywood blockbuster, but there is still the certain respect and reverence from the people who have made it because they are all steeped into that cinema culture of Russia.
I will question whether Singapore is ready to do that now, because I don’t think we’re that evolved. Obviously if someone were to do something of an experimental nature I would be equally excited to be actually part of it, no doubt.
Natalie: Do you think there’s any room for Singapore to do experimental films that are beautiful and intelligent yet simple enough to understand?
Juan: Cinema culture is important if Singapore wants to declare itself a developed nation and a cultured state and take its place as one of the more prominent countries in the global arena. However, we should also be aware that cinema culture takes years to develop. While I would say that it’s good to encourage all forms of filmmaking, filmmakers have to evolve. They have to understand that filmmaking is actually very intellectual in its purest value. A lot of people forget that. Only when you constantly ponder upon that and grow that idea, then you’ll make good films, and then you’ll make clever films and then you’ll make entertaining films for the masses. I think a lot of times, because we are always in a rush to do everything at the same time, we do not take a back seat and see how we should evolve. That’s the instant tree syndrome for Singapore. Maybe that is something that is elusive now, but hopefully we’ll get there.
Natalie: Do you think Singapore is ready to give its support for our filmmakers?
Juan: I think Singaporeans should give themselves the chance. There’s a lot of fallout along the way and there are a lot of sub-standard films. Yes, sometimes it’s very trying because it’s very frustrating to pay money to watch a bad film, regardless of the fact whether it’s Singaporean or not, but I think there has to be a certain nurturing of the cinema culture of Singapore. That does not necessarily mean just watching Singapore films – it is to actually embrace watching cinema beyond just your Friday night popcorn. From there, then you will engender that kind of respect for the craft, the reverence for the aesthetic and from there then you can actually get certain levels of patronage that will support the entire ecosystem. That’s a good way to head for.