Although he is Malaysian, filmmaker Sherman Ong could easily be considered Singaporean.
His grandparents are Singaporean, and he has been a fixture in Singapore for about two decades, ever since his student days.
“It’s difficult to say where I am rooted, as I think I straddle both countries,” said the 38-year-old, who arrived in Singapore years ago on an ASEAN scholarship, and graduated with a law degree from the National University of Singapore.
Having had his film Hashi presented at the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) in 2008, Ong is back at the festival this year, this time with an intriguing film called Memories of a Burning Tree.
The film, commissioned by the International Film Festival Rotterdam and part of its Forget Africa project, has been short-listed for the SIFF’s Silver Screen Awards, a competition for Asian features, and is also part of the Singapore Panorama programme.
It will be screening at the festival, which opens on 15 April with the gala premiere of Bruce Beresford’s Mao’s Last Dancer, at 2pm on 18 April, at Sinema Old School. Memories of a Burning Tree will be shown paired with a Singapore short film, Conversations on Sago Lane, by Chen-Hsi Wong.
Being selected for the Singapore Panorama, to Ong, is “an indication of an inclusiveness and malleability of the concept of ‘Singapore’ as a cultural identity."
A mix of cultures (African, Arabic, Indian) was what drew Ong to the African state of Tanzania, specifically its biggest city, Dar es Salaam, where he managed to put together his latest, largely improvised film.
Ong (below right, with camera) told inSing.com more about the film and his career at the moment.
How did you come up with the script?
(Going to Africa) I wanted to explore the origin of man, about Lucy (the hominid) and the start of civilisation around the African Great Lakes region. I was thinking of Kenya or Tanzania.
The story was conceived after I had an audition with amateur theatre actors who lived in the same suburb as Link Reuben, my guide in Dar es Salaam.
I asked him to take me to his neighbourhood and meet his neighbours. Link brought me to a cemetery near his home and as we were walking, he told me that some of the crosses on the graves are missing because they were taken by people who sell them as scrap metal.
That planted the seed of the story.
Was there any anxiety making this film?
I went (to Tanzania) with an open mind and didn't have any expectations, very much like when I went to Japan and then made Hashi.
I was sure I could make something in Dar. There is always drama in the most mundane of things... and I had a bit of luck and a truly wonderful guide, Link, who made it all happen.
What were some of the challenges and concerns for you?
Shooting in a Muslim cemetery without a permit in a location outside of Link's neighbourhood/territory. My crew was afraid that they would be put in jail and fined as the police were very strict with unauthorised filming.
The Tanzanian government was really upset about a film called Darwin's Nightmare (a 2004 documentary), which was apparently shot without their permission and gave a totally wrong perception about Tanzania.
I think my main concern was not to exoticise Africa and make something that you would find in National Geographic.
Do you think this film holds a mirror up to life and the filmmaking process?
I have always been interested in the human condition and relationships between people. Language and cultures are not barriers in my filmmaking process. Ultimately, we all face the same problems because as humans we all have dreams and desires.
I think good narrative films always hold a mirror up to life. The essence is still about people and their problems. Tarkovsky in one of his interviews said, “Art is born out of an ill-designed world.” This sums up the process of filmmaking.
You premiered three works at Rotterdam this year, and you've got a fourth feature (Betok) in the works. Does it feel like it’s all coming together for you as a filmmaker?
I premiered two features (Memories of a Burning Tree and Flooding in the Time of Drought) and one short (Tickets) in Rotterdam. Flooding was made for the Singapore Biennale 2008 and Tickets was an extended version of the work I made for the Singapore Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2009.
These works was made within a short span of time, it just sort of happened (this way). I think technology has allowed me to make my films on my own terms. Betok is something in the pipeline, a love story set in Malaysia. At the moment, it is still in development.
I have always worked with images, whether still or moving, for a number of years. Filmmaking is a craft and like all crafts, one has to work at it. I think great filmmaking is when the craft becomes invisible and hopefully then, the work will approximate art.