Grit and Grime: The Migrant Worker in Singapore Cinema

Flooding in the Time of Drought (2009), Written and directed by Sherman Ong

Flooding in the Time of Drought (2009), Written and directed by Sherman Ong

How do we record memories, sensations and feelings? How do we adequately translate the fleeting and ineffable into a concrete expression of the most visceral human experiences? Capturing the “truth”, in its purest and most unadulterated manifestation, has long been the ambitious mission of the mimetic arts. And cinema, as essentially one of the most immersive, illusionistic and sensorial art forms has pursued the fulfillment of this seemingly impossible endeavour ever since its invention.

But the challenge of transcribing the personal into an undiluted yet universally accessible expression is made even more insurmountable by the complexities of contemporary society, where cross-cultural and cross-lingual transmission of information is inevitable. For one, how can the individual narratives of a culturally distant alien be meaningfully interpreted via the jaundiced lenses of dominant culture and subsequently achieve assimilation into the socio-cultural narrative of local society? Or are the narratives of the cultural other destined to be left at the fringes to await obliteration by historical amnesia?

The website of the Oral History Project by Migrant Voices, an arts society that provides local migrant works a platform for creative expression, explicitly confesses a certain futility with regards to their ambitious little project.

We should state outright that cross-cultural and cross-lingual interviewing is the Achilles heel of oral history methodology. There is no catch-all solution to a project of such linguistic, cultural, and sociological complexity.

A central tenet of the project is orality, the more subjective and emotional alternative to the written traditions of official history. It involves amassing a repository of extended, longitudinal recordings of interviews which are later transcribed and translated verbatim, including grammatical errors, every “umm” or “er”, coughs and all other imperfections of daily speech. While admirable, the project is entirely built upon the spoken word. This brings us back again to the crucial question: how adequately can language, oral or written, represent memories, sensations and feelings?

This slew of questions came about after I attended a screening of Durai and Saro, an independent short film which highlights the social problems concerning the migrant worker community in Singapore. The titular characters, Durai and Saro are two strangers bounded by their common identity as migrant workers who are physically burdened and emotionally stifled by the ponderous routines of their lives in Singapore. There are moments of genuine pain and anguish, some of which inspired by the personal experiences of real life migrant workers among the cast of the film. But the film also attempts a more balanced presentation of the traditional migrant worker narrative by communicating a vague sense of hope via the relationship that develops between Durai and Saro.

Before the screening, the filmmakers reinforced their commitment to authenticity, emphasising that much efforts were made towards ensuring that the image presented is as close to the truth as possible.

I was skeptical. After all, more often than not, in the case of independent productions, the exalted aspiration for “truth” arises less out of a commitment to social realism or artistic motivation, but instead, an economy of means. Financial constraints and lack of general support often result in many independent filmmakers taking the more offbeat but economically viable path of uncovering the grit of everyday life. Consequently, the critical theoretical questions of “how to represent reality?” or “what does it mean to be authentic?” serve only as peripheral concerns.

As a film, Durai and Saro benefits primarily from the social context it positions itself against. Its central concern with regards to the marginalisation of the migrant worker community which has been essential to the nation’s economic prosperity is one of deep political urgency and relevance to present-day social realities. The casting of a number of real life migrant workers as well as the meticulously constructed environments reaffirm the filmmakers’ commitment to authenticity. Given this premise and such thematically rich material, it is perhaps unfortunate that the film failed to deliver stylistically. As with most films examining marginalised minorities, the short film strives to humanise socially stigmatised individuals, which is by all means a noble endeavour. But the clumsy, fragmentary editing, unnatural dialogue, excessive camera movements and awkward pacing of the narrative mentally strains the viewer to the extent that an emotional connection to the characters or the story becomes almost impossible.

The Call Home (2002), Written and directed by Han Yew Kwang

The Call Home (2002), Written and directed by Han Yew Kwang

While I gathered nothing truly illuminating from the film itself, what struck me as an afterthought were the broad representational strategies employed towards portraying migrant works in local cinema (and perhaps in other art forms). While there has been a respectable range of stories revolving the migrant community in Singapore (some depressing, others slightly more life-affirming), stylistically, there is little variety and progression over the years. And this issue of cinematic style is not only a matter of craftsmanship and artistry for it also concerns the broader sociological concern of the lenses via which the demographic majority perceives its migrant minority.

The docudrama feel of Durai and Saro easily brings to mind Han Yew Kwang’s The Call Home, one of the seminal works of local cinema on migrant workers. More recently, there is Sherman Ong’s Flooding in the Time of Drought, a feature film which follows the lives of eight immigrant couples in Singapore and which spans more than three hours long in length. The two works are similar in their preference for long, uninterrupted takes, mirroring the monotonous drone of everyday existence, as opposed to the distilled, hypersensitised realities that more mainstream cinema offers.

While the movement towards a more naturalistic form of cinema is visible worldwide, it does appear that the cinematic conventions of the docudrama, in particular, has become so often equated with authenticity that it has become the sole and default representational methodology for films with a more anthropological mission in mind, which in this instance, is the examination of the migrant worker community. With such a fixated set of aesthetics, the result is often a gritty, almost sordid realism that aspires to “humanise” a faceless mass of people by a simple, understated presentation of the “truth”.

But is the docudrama aesthetic the only viable way of achieving such an aspiration? Why is it that banality and blemish have grown to become the only ways to denote humanity? Or can the aesthetics of the docudrama – this curious matrimony of fact and fiction, the staged and the spontaneous – be tweaked in more inventive and original ways?

Perhaps film movements such as Dogme 95 have been a little too successful in their advocation of a purer form of cinematic expression. In their attempt to revolutionise the presentation of “cinematic truth”, they have created a monolithic set of aesthetics that has attached itself irrevocably to particular human narratives. Films on migrant workers, in particular, seem unable to transcend the passive, observational style of the docudrama that quietly and at times, monotonously records the grit and grime of everyday existence.

Surely more varied forms of representation with a bolder, more adventurous, more spirited and more distinctive directorial signature is necessary for a community of individuals as diverse and culturally heterogeneous as the local migrant worker community. Perpetual reliance on established formula will only lead to the creation of cinematic stereotypes that reduces characters into mere caricatures – the very result that we sought to reverse in the first place.

There is, however, one highly encouraging message that can be gathered from Durai and Saro, as well as all the other remarkable projects by Migrant Voices: migrant workers are not only as profoundly “human” as anyone of us are, but are also highly creative agents who are capable of defining and representing themselves even in a society which regards them as cultural aliens. But the fact is when the word “creative” comes to mind, very rarely do we associate it with the gritty realism of the docudrama. At least from a personal perspective, “creative” conjures a multitude of images that emanates with effervescent energy and unrestrained flamboyance, ranging from the outright splashy to works of art with a distinctly theatrical flair.

The options are indeed innumerable, as long as we are willing to let our imaginations roam. Artistic expression, on the screen, the stage or anywhere else, can come in more ways than one. And when it comes to representing the local migrant worker community, let’s try doing it with less of the usual grit and put a bit more lustre and polish upon that label that reads “migrant worker”.

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4 thoughts on “Grit and Grime: The Migrant Worker in Singapore Cinema

  1. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 11 Feb 2010

  2. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 07

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