Mind the Cobras! Article about NYU Tisch Asia, Singapore

An article written by a lecturer Jennifer Ruff who currently teaches at NYU Tisch Asia’s Graduate Film School in Singapore. It gives you an idea of how Tisch Asia is selling itself to aspiring American filmmakers. For Ruff, although Singapore is “boring”, this teaching gig is great because its like a super surreal sweaty vacay where you have jungles and cobras! Plus students get to film something different like fishing villages in Indonesia and street kids in Delhi, just like in Slumdog.

Published in Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2009 issue, reproduced in whole.

Mind the Cobras by Jennifer Ruff

Turing up Coco Rosie loud enough to block out the mall din of Singapore, I walk up a thick jungle road suppressing the urge to swing from giant vines. I am climbing up the hill to teach my morning editing class at Tisch’s new NYU Graduate Film School in Singapore.

Its hot here. Its 85 miles north of the equator so its always seems like the same season: summer. Which would be great (though hot) for filming if it wasn’t for that sneaky other season: monsoon. But monsoon season is kind of amazing, especially if your script calls for rain. It comes down sudden and hard over the palm trees and it seems to bruise the whole sky. Thy say more people die by lightning in Singapore than anywhere else in the world.

As I near the school (“the big blue whale”, as the students coined it), my eyes automatically scan the ground around the bamboo patch. Since opening in the fall of 2007, a few black cobras have been caught slinking around there in their shiny hoods. I love and hate that they share our campus. They sparked the conversation, “What would you do if you only had six hours (how long it takes to die from a cobra bite) to live?” Of course, more than a few students said they would grab a camera and film it.

Besides lightning and black cobras, there are a few other ways to die in Singapore. A way too young policeman pointed them out during a Powerpoint demonstration at NYU during orientation. Students and professors alike stared at the screen with wide eyes as he pointed to all the various drug offences punishable by death with his red laser pen. They still hang people here and they cane people here too. Yes, cane with a big bamboo stick.

So what the hell are we doing here?

Pioneering? Adventuring? Teaching? Learning? Filming? Dying of boredom? Sweating?

Yes despite the heat, the rain, the laws the lightning, the lack of a film scene, and the abundance of cobras, I can honestly say that it’s an amazing experience to be part of a film school in Singapore. Its good for creativity to get outside your comfort zone; to shake things up and tune your eyes to a totally different frequency. To climb around in a jungle with a camera and a bounce board and figure out how best to like the mangoes on that tree. One of the most refreshing thing for me as a teacher is seeing locations, faces and situations that haven’t been seen already in a thousand student films. This semester one student shot in a very small fishing village in Indonesia using all local non-actors. Another just got back from Delhi, shooting a narrative using real street kids. Another will be shooting in Manila in a few weeks. Singapore itself can be a lot of different things: Florida meets China meets L.A. meets Malaysia with a skyline that could be Toronto or Chicago. Not to mention the best location around: the jungle.

It takes a certain kind of student to ask, “Why not go to film school in Southeast Asia? Someone who is at heart a pioneer a with a bit of a wild side, someone who is not afraid to move to somewhere they have barely heard of to make films They are free spirits. They are brave. And they manage to thrive on being alienated and out of their element. All qualities I think, that can make for great films and great filmmakers.

Essentially, its like being on location all year. Our eccentric cast and crew of students and professors are stuck together on a small southern tip of Malaysia forging films out of marble malls and palm trees and getting to know each other way too well. They majority of the students still come from the States, with the Asian countries in a close second. We also have two students from Africa who studied at Maishar in Uganda, the NGO film lab started by Mira Nair, and a few others from Europe, South America and Australia.

To be frank, Singapore itself is boring. There is not a lot to do except make films. Which is kind of great. In New York City, there are a million amazing distractions, but I’ve noticed that students here spend much more time in the editing lab; there just isn’t as much to tempt them. It’s great to have all the influences New York offers, but its also great to have nothing more interesting than your own film to bury yourself in.

Any when you do need a little more excitement, Singapore is smack in the centre of Southeast Asia. With less money than you’ll spend in a New York weekend and less time than it takes to fly to Montauk, you can be in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia. And in the time it takes to drive to Boston, you can be in China, India, Taiwan or Burma. The most exciting thing to me is that the students and faculty not only get to travel to these places, but they get to film in them as well.

These surrounding regions have interesting film scenes of their own that outpace Singapore’s in international recognition. Other than Eric Khoo, whose film My Magic received a passionate standing ovation as the first Singaporean film to be in competition in Cannes this year, most cineastes probably can’t name another Singapore director. A few years ago, though, the government here began to realise that people need local culture, and it has been aggressively devoting resources to the arts, with one initiative being the importing of good universities. It may take a while to build a film scene, but if the film output of Thailand, China, Vietnam and the Philippines is any indication, there is a lot of potential.

Understanding that the students need the influence of Western filmmakers as well, Tisch Aisa has brought in some great directors to conduct workshops and Master classes. Last semester, Todd Solondz dedicated a lot of time to the students, workshopping their new scripts with them and evaluating the films they had just cut. Joshua Maston gave great workshops on working with non-actors while also helping the students with their scripts. Not to mention, Oliver Stone is now the school’s Artistic Director, and he plans on coming out a few times a year to hold Master classes, He was just out for a week and gave lectures on screenwriting, directing and the industry. And, making Thanksgiving in the tropics even more surreal, he had Thanksgiving dinner with everyone, which is something I can’t imagine happening in New York.

Singapore is surreal and while it may initially seem an odd spot for a film school, as the school continues to grow and expand into the region, I understand it more and more, So even though I can’t go to the Film Forum or see Synecdoche, New York as it hasn’t been released here yet, or even smoke a joint, I can have an experience that just might alter me and my films forever.

While I am gone

Mull on this picture until I get back from Mexico,will you

Picture 3.png

Zakaria Ali
Me and My Parents as Zapatistas 1977
Oil on canvas 70 X 120cm
Collection National Gallery, Malaysia
(Thanks Lucy!)

Eyes on the Prize

“I think our purpose as filmmakers or as storytellers or whatever you’re going to call us is to say that at this particular point with this relationship, with this social structure, in this political climate, this is the best film I could do. I think that’s all we can do. Then we?re not exploitative, we’re not the Spielbergs or the whatever. Then it becomes extremely personal, for better or worse. So don’t get confused by digital or non-digital or money or not – just do the best fucking film you can with your abilities at that time. I mean, why else do we make films when we could have gone into real estate? [laughs]” – Chris Doyle

I think of going into real estate all the time.

Full Chris Doyle Filmmaker magazine interview here

Malacanang Palace

In Manila for Cinemanila, the jury had the privilege of being invited to Malacanang Palace (Philippine’s White House) to attend the prize giving ceremony for the film festival winners. The prizes were awarded by President Arroyo herself. I was surprised that films was given so much “face”. (It would be like PM Lee, Nathan inviting SIFF & filmmakers to the Istana) The event was accorded two hours of the President’s time at the height of the financial crisis.

But Philippine films are enjoying international festival attention and this was the film industry’s moment in the sun. The event was surreal because it was very casual. President herself wore an ABBAesque pant suit. There was minimal protocol and security. We were allowed to walk around the palace ourselves after the event and we could take pictures freely. (Perhaps all Presidential Palaces should be as informal, why shouldn’t it?). The palace was grand but it wasn’t intimidating. The only time the guards approached us was when they asked Edwin Blindpig and Amir to smoke away from the building.

So here, pictures of our excursion in the Palace



We passed this alcove on the way to the hall. It appears that Catholicism is emeshed into the Constitution as 350 years of Spanish colonisation would do to one.


There was a hall with all the portraits of past presidents. I expected Marcos’ to be absent, but there he was next to the portrait of Aquino


Gloria Arroyo in her ABBA outfit!

Us renegates, myself, Amir, Pimpaka Towira, Rebecca under President Gloria’s portrait, how nice of them to site a bench there.

Group portrait with President Gloria again, I am the blur blob behind in black

Cercado sisters performing. Very Celine Dion. The MC said they were best known for winning in the 2006 World Championship of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, California.

Bienvenido Lumbera and Pete Lacaba in their barongs. The former is the current National Artist (This appointment comes with a state funeral) and the latter, a journalist/poet/scriptwriter. Pete wrote many of Lino Brocka’s finest films. He told me that he was in the same Palace the night the Marcos regime fell as a reporter. He received the Cinemanila Lifetime Achievement Award. He had the benign quality of someone who had seen it all.

At the back of the Palace was a fast moving river, this is the same pontoon from which ex-President Joesph Estrada escaped and there Amir stood that day.

A kindred spirit

In yesterday’s Straits Times, a letter from a kindred spirit who wrote to Straits Times, we should join forces

Jan 10, 2009

Noise limits do not help

I REFER to Thursday’s reply by Mr Tan Quee Hong, director, Pollution Control Department, National Environment Agency (NEA), to Mrs Nancy Tsang’s letter, ‘Noisy every day’ (Dec 27).

According to the agency, the maximum permissible noise limits are more stringent at night, between 10pm and 7am, compared to the limits during the day. But the period between 10pm and 7am is when most residents are trying to sleep.

Should work even be allowed close to residential areas at night?

Are Sundays and public holidays not when people want or need to sleep in?

Singapore is compact in terms of housing, be it HDB or private estates, and construction in and around them is unavoidable.
I am currently sandwiched between two construction sites in a supposedly quiet location. Sleep in on a Sunday or public holiday? It is impossible to enjoy a meaningful rest. This is what is happening on Sunday at 9am: the noise of reinforcement bars thrown onto a metal platform at one-minute intervals, constant movement of tracked cranes or excavators, and hammering of plywood forms.

‘Permissible noise limits’ are permissible because NEA officers carry out checks with instruments.

Instruments do not need to sleep. People do.

What are ‘permissible noise limits’? It depends on whether you are trying to sleep, you have been woken from your sleep or you are hard of hearing.

The agency also replied that it has further tightened the permissible noise limits on Sundays and public holidays for construction sites located close to residential premises.

I am so close to the two construction sites, I can shake salt over my shoulder onto the sites for good luck.

I telephoned the agency to ask about the construction sites near my home.

The reply: ‘No construction work near residential homes at night and Sundays and public holidays.’

It is not unreasonable to stop construction work at night, on Sundays and public holidays.

Ronnie Koh

Older projects unaffected

‘Those that began earlier are still subject to the old noise regulations, which allow higher noise levels.’

MR CLARENCE YING: ‘I refer to Thursday’s letter by Mr Tan Quee Hong of the National Environment Agency (NEA), ‘Stricter noise limits on Sundays and public holidays’. Readers may wish to note that the new rule which tightened noise limits applies only to developments that began construction works from October 2007. Earlier projects need only observe the old noise regulations, which allow higher noise levels at night and on Sundays and public holidays. For more information on control of noise at construction sites, visit the NEA website, app2.nea.gov.sg/index.aspx .’

Hello! Singtel girls

telephone operator.jpg

At a funeral, I met a group of women in their fifties who are the original Singtel girls (Singapore Telecom, then the national telephony company before it privatised). These women started working at Singtel as girls fresh out of high school, as telephone operators, phone book distributors, and some stayed with Singtel for more than 30 years. In 1998 they were retrenched from the Teletext department but not before becoming firm friends. They have seen each other through children, illnesses and they were there for the funeral.

Incredulous that anyone could spend all that time with one company, I hal- teased them, “You mean you gave your youth to Singtel?”

I got an answer I did not expect – “No! a couple of us met our husbands there!”

They must have done a split-second tally-up and decided that that made it all worth it.

DSC01609 singtel.jpg
From L-R Tracy (26 yrs), Doreen (26 yrs), Christine (30 yrs), Daisy (31 yrs), Nancy (31 yrs). Between them they worked for Singtel for 144 years

Artful Dodgers

This is part 3 of the post “How I met my neighbours or why I invited the Minister to my house” in which I published the letter my neighbours and I wrote to the Minister of Environment and the National Environmental Agency about construction noise pollution in our high density neighbourhood in Singapore. We appealed to have a quiet day, one day of the week.

Part 2 details your rights as a Singaporean to have a quiet environment with links to the appropriate legislation. It lets you know that you don’t have much rights because construction can take place 365/yr, 24/7 even in high density residential areas even on Sundays or public holidays, the laws explicity permit that

In this post, I am publishing the letter that NEA in reply to our letter

In the letter NEA proposed setting up a meeting between ourselves and the contractor, ignoring the point we made that we already met the contractor after NEA said they could not do much since the legislation permits the noise. As to their point about having already lowered NEA limits, they also ignore the fact that our homes are only 10-20m away from the construction site. Even a single drill or hammer strike, well within the noise limits, is very loud on a Sunday if your bedroom is by the site. It takes special skill to write such a letter blithely ignoring your points, and reinstating their own.

All we ask for is a Sunday of quiet, free of construction noise in high density neighbourhoods.


27 Jun 2008

Dear Ms Tan,


We refer to your feedback on construction noise at 77 Mergui Road.

2 We had informed you previously that the National Environment Agency (NEA) controls construction noise using a set of maximum permissible noise limits stipulated under the Environmental Protection and Management (Control of Noise at Construction sites) Regulations. Construction companies are required to take noise abatement measures and manage their works to comply with the noise limits.

3 The permissible noise limits for construction sites near to residential premises at night, and on Sunday and public holidays had been tightened since 1 Oct 07. The revised noise limits for such worksites are now the same as the noise limits for worksites that are near to noise sensitive premises such as hospitals and schools.

4 The construction company undertaking the project at the said worksite has set up a noise monitoring instrument to continuously measure the noise levels from the construction works. We have checked the noise monitoring results and found that the noise levels were within the permissible limits, including the more stringent limits for Sundays and public holidays. Notwithstanding this, we have advised the contractor to rescheduled noisy works in order to minimise noise on Sundays and public holidays.

5 We will monitor closely the worksite and we will not hesitate to take enforcement action against the construction company should he carry out noisy work that exceeds the permissible noise limits.

6 If you are agreeable, we will arrange a date convenient to you and the affected residents to meet up with the management of the construction company. The meeting will give you an opportunity to give your feedback to the management of the company and for the company to explain the measures it had taken to reduce noise emission from its construction site.

7 If you need further clarification or would like to provide further feedback to us, please contact me at DID: 67319137 or Mr Khairul Sani Samsudin at DID: 67319664 or call NEA hotline at 1800-CALL NEA (1800-2255 632). Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Rahmad bin Sidek
For Director
Pollution Control Department
The National Environment Agency

Permissible noise limits

This is a follow up from my previous post “How I met my neighbours or why I invited the Minister to my home”

Contrary to what people think, building construction can take place in Singapore 24/7 at 365 days/year even in high density residential areas. The regulations permit it.

See it for yourself. Download the NEA regulations here. Choose “Control of Noise at Construction site”, page 4

If your construction site is within 150m from a residential area, you can bang away in flagrante as long as you don’t exceed these “permissible construction noise limits”

7am-7pm >> 75 dBA

7pm-10pm >> 65 dBA

10pm-7am >> 55 dBA

These permissible levels are high and skew far in favour of the contractor. You can technically bang away at 3am too, you are allowed. The regulations do not diifferentiate between weekdays and Sundays/PH

If you are lucky, you will live beside a site with reasonable contractors, others are not so lucky. For us over here, we have been suffering for more than 15 months.

We have called and appealed to the NEA to no avail.

The regulations need to change, now. This is where a “light touch pro-business” approach should not apply

I speak for all those out there who have to decamp, shutter our homes on Sundays to escape the din and why should we? Its our home too

How I met my neigbours

(or why I invited the Minister to lie on my bed)

My 24 neighbours and I wrote a letter to the National Environmental Agency NEA to complain about construction noise on Sundays and Public Holidays in our neighbourhood, we asked for a Sunday free of construction noise because it has been disrupting to our Sundays for 18 months. Sheer desparation brought us together, I had up until then, never spoken to most of them. This letter was sent out in June but the construction noise has continued to this day, even on X’mas day! NEA knows the problem since they have been inaundated with calls. Yet they are slow to react. Who are they protecting?

National Environment Agency
40 Scotts Road
Environment Building #13-00
Singapore 228231

15 June 08

Dear Sir

Appeal to ban construction in high-density neighbourhoods on Sundays and public holidays

We represent 25 households living in two 11-storey high apartment blocks that flank a construction site, 77 Mergui Road. They are building a 19-storey condominium on this construction site and our blocks are 20-30m away from it. The developer is Fragrance Properties Pte Ltd. They have been building 7 days a week including Sundays and public holidays and they will continue for the next 10 months according to the hoarding signboard.

We are writing to you because we are at our wits end with what to do about the disruption caused to our lives by the construction noise that has bombarded our homes on Sundays/Public Holidays for the past 8 months.

Sundays for most of us is our only rest day and that has been made impossible by the loud construction noise. Some of us are forced to leave our homes on Sunday. This is the case on all Public Holidays too. Even Labour Day, a day you would expect the workers to be given a rest day! If you do not intervene, including the 8 months that we have already suffered, it would 18 months of lost Sundays and public holidays for us.

We would not be writing to you if our numerous complaints to NEA and also to the worksite foreman were not futile. When a complaint is made to NEA, officers who visit the site tell us that the noise the workers make is within the “permissible limits”, there is nothing the officers can do but to “advise the contractor” to be more considerate. Meanwhile, they will continue to “monitor the situation”. Unfortunately, the monitoring has not yielded any sustained result. There are Sundays when the workers deign to stop the noise at 5pm, but this is ad hoc. They continue the work again the early next Sunday. Obviously this softly approach of “advising the contractor” does not work.

Meanwhile, when we approach the contractors, they ignore our pleas because they say that they are working within the limits NEA set. Besides they are behind schedule so they need to work 7 days a week.

The issue is that the permissible levels that your department has set needs to be re-reviewed urgently. We would like you to ban construction on worksites on Sundays/PH where there are high-density dwellings very near the work site. If you feel that a ban is too draconian, we tell you that it is not. Try waking up every Sunday to hammering and welding sounds right outside your bedroom. Our homes, I mentioned before are less than 30m from the site. Enclosed is a picture taken from the lift lobby of 81 Mergui Rd, next door to the site. See how close we are to the site.

Pasted Graphic.jpg

If one of your jobs is to balance the competing needs of different constituents of Singapore, we want to inform you that the permissible noise limits skew too far in favour of the developer. We urge you to make Singapore a pleasant place for all to live, not just for developers and contractors.

We are not complaining about noise per say. We can bear construction noise from Monday to Saturday. All we ask is that we residents are allowed to rest in peace on Sundays/PH, just one day of the week. After all, what does it mean to “live in Singapore”, if living here means having to put up with this din 365 days a year and for such a prolonged period of time?

We would like to have a dialogue with you about this issue. We would also like to invite you to our homes on Sunday so that you can hear for yourself the construction din that we suffered these past 8 months and will have to put up for 10 more if you allow this to continue.

This letter carries only 25 representative signatures from each affected household, but it represents many more within each household who are affected, children, elderly who are unable to speak for themselves.

Together, all we ask is a Sunday of peace and quiet in our homes.

Thank you,

Tan Pin Pin (Contact person) This is signed by representatives of 24 other households.

cc CEO NEA, Chairman NEA, Minister MEWR

Pt 2 Rights of Singapore to have a quiet Sunday
Pt 3 Reply from the NEA to the letter above

St Mary’s School, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

My mother’s cousin’s son sent us a picture of my mother’s school in KL, St Mary’s School. All my aunts and their cousins went there too. The boys went to Victoria Institution. Though I had heard her talk about the school, I have never seen it. It is a beautiful building, expansive but not unfriendly though the girls look dwarfed by it.

Later she went to university in Melbourne, Australia. Her education there was supported by the whole extended family. When we were growing up, everytime we met a grand aunt/uncle and there were many, my mother would say, so and so “gave this amount every month to put me through school”. She never forgot and didn’t want us to either. At Melbourne University, she met my father and after graduation, moved to Singapore where she spent the rest of her life. I wonder if they considered moving to KL instead?

Would my life be very different if they did?

auntie yin 3_2.jpg

The uniforms circa 1953?


Migrant workers

Johor Baru, Malaysia. A sea of about 1000 or more bikes parked beside the train station in the heart the city. Its the biggest park and ride bike park I have ever seen. These commuters ride their bikes from small towns in Malaysia here at early dawn, take the train or bus into Singapore to work. In the evening, they come back to this park and ride stop, ride back to their hometowns. This picture gives you a scale of the everyday to-ing and fro-ing.


Little India, Singapore. They pose in their best suit to send photos back home. If you peer closely, some have chosen the Singapore skyline as a backdrop, even the Esplanade!


P. Ramlee’s Toilet

While in Penang, Malaysia I visited P Ramlee’s house (where he was born into). It has been built into a little museum. P Ramlee was a gifted actor, director, singer and he was a star in the Golden Age of Malay Cinema. His films from the 50’s/60s are still much loved today. They show it often during Hari Raya in Singapore. Both Singapore and Malaysia claim him as their son, so this building staked its claim in no uncertain terms

The Museum presented P Ramlee rather literally




His kitchen


His leading ladies


His suitcase


His national flower


His toilet


Fly by Night Video Challenge Closing Date 18 Nov

Last year, our theme was “still” which yielded a nice range of videos. What will this year be? Find out on 28 Nov, 7.30pm. Details www.fly-by-night.org

Closing date 18 Nov

Choosing a theme is an art, in 2005, we had so many videos with R-rated swear words in it because the theme was “#&$*)”. What was I thinking? I promise I won’t be smart ass this year

Whatever it is, we don’t expect you to tattoo the theme on your chest like what Travis Clements did last year. He filmed the tattoo-ing as part of his submission. We had to gave him an award for that.

Quick sign up! No experience required, No tattoo-ing required too



Asian Vision Award from Taiwan

Invisible City won Asian Vision Award Merit Prize at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival

The Citation


very roughly translates to

“Facilitated dialogues among different historical locales through intellectually rich images, enabling memories to travel between lightness and gravity. This film brings new inspiration and stimulation to the telling of Asian histories as a whole.”

I didn’t even know this film was in competition so its a really nice surprise

Invisible reviews

I am often asked how Invisible City is received when it is screened abroad. Interestingly enough, it seems that more people abroad are able to grasp the themes, if the writings on the film online are any measure. Ignorance, where interpretation is needed is sometimes helpful.

Recent overseas reviews



Those of you who know me know that I have been conniving to go to Pyongyang the past few years, especially after watching State of Mind. I just found out that fellow docu-frens James and Lynn got there via the Pyongyang International Film Festival. Jealous I am

Read about their trip here

We like to watch

Edwin (Indonesia, Blindpig Who Wants to Fly), Arlene Cuevas (Philippines, Producer) and myself watched 12 hours of Philippine films at Cinemanila. It wasn’t too difficult to decide the winners. We gave the awards to the following films. The prize giving ceremony was at the Malacanang Palace, the the filmmakers were given the awards by the President Gloria Arroyo herself. Will post pictures of that ceremony soon. Don’t mind the citations, they were written to be read slowly.

ISHMAEL BERNAL AWARD Surreal random MMS Texts Para Ed Ina, Agui, Tan Kaamong Ya Makaiiliw Ed Sika: Gurgurlis Ed Banua
We found Christopher Gozum’s flm inspiring. He was able to combine the beauty of Carlos Bulasan’s poetry with minimalist and random images of LCD screens, daily life, creating rhythm light and sound from them to convey the longing and displacement of a Filipino working in the Middle East. Revelatory and humbling, we hope this award will encourage the director to continue his quest of mapping the Pinoy heart through film.

Tumbang Preso
We applaud the film Tumbang Preso for the clever use of one set of dialogue to contrast and parallel the world of Estong as a child and Estong as a grown-up. The director understands the short film medium and has the discipline to work within the limitations of it to produce a fun and very watchable short film.

We award the Best Documentary award to Marlon for giving a fresh look on the subject of blindness.
We applaud the directors or their sharp eye for details, their patience and their restraint. They let the mundane details of the daily life of a poor blind boy speak to the audience directly but quietly. For trusting these details to resonate with the audience universally and…for not exploiting a subject that could be easily exploited.


I am very excited to be going to Manila. I have never been to the Philippines. I have always wanted to go and now, am going. The occasion is Cinemanila. Invisible City is screening , and I am also on the jury of the Young Cinema Competition. I wonder what Manila looks like?