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Interview with Tan Pin Pin, Storytelling Lab Mentor

Tan Pin Pin is a Singaporean-based film director and producer, who's been making films for at least 25 years. She is known for her works interrogating the idea of Singapore through films like Singapore Gaga (2005), Invisible City (2007), To Singapore, with Love (2013), and In Time To Come (2017). Pin Pin has won many prestigious awards and she was also a board member of the National Archives of Singapore and Singapore International Film Festival. In 2018, she was one of two Singaporeans to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), representing the documentary branch.

She is  one of our mentors for the Storytelling Lab at Docs By The Sea Accelerator 2021, and this is her first year with our Lab. We had a chance to talk with her about documentary films, the role of AMPAS, and her view on the future of the Southeast Asian film industry.

This interview is edited for brevity.

This is your first year at Docs By The Sea. Why did you say yes to Docs By The Sea this year?

I've always wanted to be a mentor, and I've always been interested in Southeast Asian projects. I really feel that it's important for me to be involved with labs from this part of the world as well. And it turned out to be very special because without even knowing it, I felt that I could understand some projects a little bit more than someone who isn't from this part of town. I also just want to know what's happening. I want to know what people are thinking, whether it's in Burma, in Solo, or in Chiang Mai.

What’s your experience like meeting the filmmakers and the projects?

First of all, the lab is incredibly well-organised in terms of the organisation of the materials that we were given and the schedule as well. As for the projects, it’s a very wide range, from shorts that are almost finished to longer projects in which the film team doesn’t quite know how to pitch it. I think it's really special that these projects are selected and given an opportunity to participate in Docs By The Sea. With labs, I think choosing the right projects, for the right timing, and the right section of each lab is very important. If you choose it too early, I feel that they might be wasting the opportunity because they probably need to process a little bit more, if you choose it too late, there may be some advice that they could have gotten before they fixed the project. So, from some of the groups I've had, I think they were very well chosen.

What was the overall strongest point and challenge that you saw in all the projects this year? Was there specific advice that you gave to them that applies to all projects?

I encouraged everyone to think of how their own story or the story of their community can be relevant to people within and beyond their community, and how they can find a little key so that everyone is able to unlock the treasure chest of the story and be able to enjoy what you are trying to share. With the story, you can also be very local and very universal at the same time, but it is also okay if your project is meant for a very local audience. Don’t feel like you have to cover the world. I also want them to realise that pitches are actually just a presentation of one possible facet of the story.

You have been making films for 25 years. What is documentary to you?

To me, it doesn't really mean a specific genre. It's really just wanting to share with someone, “Look, this exists, isn't that amazing?" So, it's that initial inclination of trying to find someone who feels as excited as you are about this topic at hand, and it’s like it is trying to find a community, find a tribe. When you find like-minded people, then that film itself becomes a rallying point for a community that in a way never existed before.

Any advice for a first time director?

I would say coming to labs like this is a good idea because there's a very good collection of not just mentors, but also a larger community of people who can share feedback, as well as share constructive criticisms about your project. That's why I try to make sure that the participants in the group also have a chance to communicate their views, and their views are very, very important because we are coming from all different cultures. So, they immediately get instantaneous, transnational feedback that they wouldn't ever get if they for example, were to just pitch a project in Singapore amongst their peers, as well as amongst the mentors.

But at the same time, the flip side of it is to take everything we say with a pinch of salt. For me, it's always been about finding maybe three or four people whose views I trust, so that at each stage in the production, these are people that you can tap in for if you get stuck.

You're also a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) since 2018. Can you tell us what it means to you?

For me, it's an opportunity to increase the visibility of work from this part of the world. But talking about increasing the visibility in my role, I was a board member of an international film festival for many years as well, and that festival has been trying to promote Southeast Asian work, both fiction and nonfiction for almost three decades now.

How do you use your position or role in AMPAS to promote the Southeast Asian film industry?

It’s not just my position at AMPAS, but also my position at SGIFF (Singapore International Film Festival), and any other forums. I think a lot of it is almost film advocacy for films coming from our part of the world. SGIFF has had a very long history of showing works from this part of the world as the central part of its programming, and because of that we will be able to promote it as well. And this just goes beyond documentary, it is also about media in general because the world can get so lopsided.

With more Southeast Asian filmmakers being a member of AMPAS, how do you think it can help to promote the future of the Southeast Asian film industry, especially documentary?

With a higher membership of people from this part of the world, it reminds the viewers that there's a lot of amazing stories that are from this part of the world as well. But I always feel that that's only part of the story. I think we ourselves need to appreciate our own work and our own stories as well. Why are we reading the Guardian? We should be RSS feeding, read Jakarta Post, Tempo, Bangkok Post. That should be on the top of our feet. Why would it need to be filtered from and passed back to this part when we ourselves are blind. So, that’s where I come from, and why I continue to be very excited and very involved in work coming out of this part of the world.

Do you think forums like Docs By The Sea can help achieve that vision to promote Southeast Asian film industry?

Yes, venues like Docs By The Sea are very very important because firstly, it is in our time zone. I cannot tell you how important that is. The other thing is, it's a very comfortable and non threatening environment for a lot of younger film directors to come together with their peers who are in the same stage of development to help each other become better. So, it is a very community-feeling kind of environment, which I feel is important. I think the keys to the treasure chest are being found across these workshops.