Thursday, April 10, 2008

[SIFF08] To Speak (Asian Premiere)

Written and directed by Craig Ower, To Speak is shot in Cambodia, based on true events. For the most parts, you can't help but to feel that this is akin to a self-help philosophical movie, told through the trials and tribulations of one outspoken girl, Ratana, who isn't afraid of trying new things and becomes an agent of change. And the most difficult change of all, is a person's mindset, what more an entire village?

Being poor and her family perpetually hungry, Ratana seeks to improve her lot, with big dreams of living in a proper house. Working in a quarry by day and taking on extra chores, her fate is no different from the rest of the villagers, constantly exploited for the middleman's gains. But here's where Tabitha the organization, got themselves worked into the narrative, which at times made this seem like an awareness program turned into a film.

But it does provide, as I mentioned, self-help reminders that in generic terms anyone could learn from. Basically, you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and the villagers, or at least Ratana for a start, get to learn the concept of saving. When you live from hand to mouth, saving something from meagre salary is unheard of, because there are always more immediate needs, not wants, that has to be fulfilled. It boils down to learning the value of saving for a rainy day, and the power of compounding interest, along the lines that you have to help yourselves first, than to solely rely on the the handouts from others on a whim and fancy.

The Tabitha way is generally explained here, and works like a primitive banking system, encouraging its participants to start small with achievable goals, in order to boost morale and gain confidence, before collectively, as a village, they can move on to greater things, for the greater good, when they begin to pool resources. Oceans begin with the first drop of water, and through one girls' tenacity, often against her single parent's wishes, she does battle against the expected detractors of any typical community, as they ridicule and rebuke her constantly, given that Tabitha's philosophy goes against their common and collective wishes.

However, To Speak isn't just a mouthpiece for the organization in explaning how they help commnunities improve their standard of living one step at a time. There are some moments which recount of a harder life under the Khmer regime, and overall, the movie has a very TV documentary feel to it, which works to its advantage in giving it a raw edge for the environment it is set in. It's unpolished but has a level of sincerity shining through in wanting to tell an honest and good story with the kindling of the kampung spirit. You must be prepared though, as most of the cast are unprofessional actors, the delivery of their style of acting, and lines, can be somewhat stilted, and some scenes did drag on for far too long as it bordered on the cliche. However, don't let these detract you from the message it has to convey.

Prior to the screening of To Speak today, a video tribute to Reuben Kee was played. Reuben was the music composer for the movie, and the many memorable tunes in the movie was his creation. Unfortunately, he was lost in a fairly recent tragedy where some national dragon boaters perished during a competition in Cambodia. I thought he had given To Speak a new dimension with his soundtrack, and the film now becomes testament of that promising talent.

To Speak is Craig Ower's first feature movie, but one which has universal themes to touch upon, and while at times I had found the philosophical moments a bit wanting and forced, you can't help but to remind oneself that providing a fish to someone hungry is always not as useful as providing them with the know-how to fish instead.

Left: Producer Lionel Chok, Right: Director Craig Ower

There was a Q&A session after the screening with producer Lionel Chok and director Craig Ower. A selected excerpt is reproduced below. As usual, I have paraphrased (for the better I hope) for clarity and readability. For those who are spoiler wary, please read something else. You have been warned.

Q: Were actors casted in the roles?
A: They weren't actors before this, but probably after! Some of the characters like the businessman and the mother are Tabitha staff, while the kids were from the village, but caught on pretty quick.

Q: Have you shown the movie to the villagers?
A: We had meant to get back to show the movie to them, but not yet, given there's no electricity. Some Tabitha staff had already seen it.

Q: Did you stay in the village during the production?
A: No, we had to commute back and forth to Phnom Penh each day, and the hotel wasn't too happy with us leaving our trails of mud in the hotel!

Lionel also shared that they had only one main camera and one behind the scenes camera used to film the movie, and colouring was done by Infinite Frameworks. Craig also revealed that the setup was pretty basic, with no lights and only one microphone.

For those interested in catching up with Lionel, Craig and Alvin Lee the Director of Photography, they will be conducting a Q&A Session this Saturday 12 April 3pm at the Esplanade Library.

If you're keen to watch the movie during its Charity Screening on Sat 26 Apr 08 at 645pm, you can click on this link for details.

Otherwise, as we're informed by Craig, the DVD should be available some time in June, so keep you eyes peeled for it!

Related Links
Official To Speak Movie Website with Embedded Trailer

There will be 1 more screening of To Speak at this year's SIFF on 13 April Sunday 2pm at Sinema Old School. However it's Sold Out, but you can always try your luck at the door if you are keen!

The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

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