Monday, October 13, 2008

Interview with Writer-Director Marc X Grigoroff

2008 sees a whole spectrum of movies which were made on Singapore's shores hit the big screen, and it's not just the locals getting into the act, but non-Singaporean filmmakers too. In fact, this year's bumper crop of local films made by, for the lack of a better word, foreigners include Tony Kern's documentary A Month of Hungry Ghosts which was recently screened, and Craig Ower's To Speak which is set in Cambodia, screened during the Singapore International Film Festival. John Riddel and Max Mannix shared directorial duties with Dance of the Dragon screened in May, while Philip Mark Mitchell presents the long awaited animated film Sing to the Dawn over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, Marc X Grigoroff premieres his movie Salawati this week, and here's an excerpt of the official synopsis:

"Salawati" explores the fragile nature of human relationships, particularly in the face of tragedy. It calls into question our notions of morality, mercy, revenge and ultimately, forgiveness.

I managed to catch up with Salawati's writer-director through an email interview to find out more about the movie, and of course, a little about the first time feature film director as well. For the spoiler-wary, well, do go watch the film first, before coming back here to read the interview:

Stefan S (SS): Was it a conscious decision that you wanted to incorporate all the major races of Singapore into your film, giving each race almost equal screen time? Were you apprehensive about having to deal with languages that you may not be proficient in?

Marc X Grigoroff (MG): From my first visit, I’ve been fascinated by the myriad of races, cultures and languages represented in Singapore. However, it isn’t something I need to focus on; rather, it’s something I experience everyday – walking down the street, riding in a taxi, eating in a hawker center or simply listening to the conversations that surround me. To me, this is Singapore. Therefore, it was natural to include this diversity in the story.

Malay, Tamil and Mandarin were definitely a challenge when directing. But challenges are a part of filmmaking. In this case, the various languages gave the film an honesty and a dimension that would not have been achievable had the film been presented in English.

SS: I notice that you do have a number of moments where you touched on the nastiness of cab drivers, and have shown local drivers at their worst. Did you encounter such horrific situations yourself and wanted to release pent up emotions about those bad experiences?

MG: Actually, I am a supporter of Singapore cab drivers. They work very hard for whatever they earn, and in more than a decade here, I’ve experienced only one incident that I would describe as negative. However, I have noticed a significant lack of harmony between cabbies and couriers. This is by no means a Singaporean phenomenon; it seems universal. Just take a look at the relationship between New York cab drivers and bicycle couriers. Talk about nasty. So no, this was not a form of catharsis. It was simply way of further defining the character of the couriers.

SS: The ending made one sit up, as I thought it posed two possibilities, depending on how one chooses to interpret it, with her either standing by doing nothing, or in performing an act of saving the kid’s life, she had found within her, redemption and forgiveness, and thanks God for it. But I’m more inclined to think that it was the opposite, given what I felt were clues from the parting shots of the parents. What made you come up with such a powerful, purposeful ending, and what was the message you were bringing across?

MG: The ending is definitely subject to interpretation. I wanted to avoid defining the characters for the audience, particularly in terms of “good and bad” and “right and wrong”. My intention is to leave space for viewers to decide for themselves. Part of this decision will certainly be based on what the film brings to the viewer. But equally important is what the viewer brings to the film. I have watched people debate what the ending means, and many are absolutely certain their interpretation is the right one. I know it might sound strange, but these debates represent what you might call my message. That is, seldom can we be absolutely certain about anything, especially when it comes to human behavior. And if we are, how much of this certainty is based on actual evidence and how much is based on our preconceived notions about race, religion, nationality, gender, age, socio-economic status or any of the other categories that serve to separate us.

SS: Were you familiar with local customs given that you’ve been living here for some time, or did you have to do extensive research for the stories in the film?

MG: I have now lived in Singapore for over a decade and am somewhat familiar with a number of local customs. However, “somewhat familiar” is hardly sufficient when it comes to writing a screenplay or shooting a film. I did a fair amount of research, although I don’t know if it would qualify as extensive. I was most concerned with writing about Islam, as religion is always a sensitive issue. I did research online, and I interviewed a number of Muslims, including a religious teacher. I also attended a Muslim funeral. Moreover, I discussed the screenplay with Chinese, Malays and Indians and invited a number of people to read it. Surprisingly, only a few changes were suggested and most of these were made, as I felt they improved the overall story.

SS: Family and the pursuit of economic happiness. Which is important to you, and what made you want to also focus on this aspect through Mr Chan?

MG: They are both important to me, for it’s difficult to take care of your family without sufficient economic support. The challenge is finding the proper balance. I’ve met a number of people who, like Mr Chan, are extremely focused on their careers. Their motivations are complex: they want to take care of their families; they want to live up to cultural expectations; they want to be the best; and from infancy, they have been told that success is measured in terms of how much you have. Ultimately, how people feel about Mr Chan will probably be influenced by the work/family balance they maintain in their own lives.

SS: Salawati made its world premiere in the USA. What was the reaction of the audience to the film?

MG: I was overwhelmed by how well audiences responded to the film. People seemed very moved, and the extensive question-and-answer sessions following the screenings were spirited. Most were curious about the story itself, and raised many of the issues we’re covering here. But it’s important to understand that, to a lot of Americans, Singapore is a very exotic and mysterious land. Thus, they were curious about Singapore itself. Even after the official sessions ended, the discussions continued in the lobby of the theater. Often, I stood by silently and watched others debate the meaning of issues raised in the film. It was very satisfying see “Salawati” have this kind of effect on people.

SS: This is one of my favourite questions to ask of directors who have made the films here: What do you currently think is the state of Singapore Cinema, and how would you perceive it to be some 5 years down the road?

MG: I believe this is the best time to be involved in film in Singapore. The industry is young and vibrant and evolving constantly. (Keep in mind, Hollywood took decades to become HOLLYWOOD.) One day, people will look back to this time and think about how amazing it must have been to be a part of this scene. There is a lot of talent in Singapore, and the quality of films will consistently improve. I am also very impressed with how supportive filmmakers are toward one another. They always seem ready to help, even when involved in their own projects. When I hear people say it’s tough to do a film in Singapore, I suggest they go somewhere else and try to get funding and make a film and get it distributed. Singapore offers a very conducive environment, with the many film grants, film schools, production houses and all the supporters of local film. I am truly happy to be a part of it.

SS: The other favourite question I have, to sum up the interview, would be whether you can share some details about your next film project?

MG: It is a story inspired by the murder of a foreign woman in Singapore several years ago. It involves a young Malay family, and a variety of characters who behave so bizarrely they almost seem fictional. I remember following the story in the newspapers as it unfolded, and I still have all the clippings. I hope to begin shooting next year.

SS: Thank you Marc for taking precious time for this interview


Salawati is now showing in GV cinemas.

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