Sindie: Production Talk – ‘The Impossibility of Knowing’ by Tan Pin Pin

This was published by Sindie on 11 Oct 2010, just after the world premiere of The Impossibility of Knowing at the DMZ festival. Sindie covered many of the indie film events and premieres in Singapore around that time, especially of smaller films, like shorts, missed by the mainstream media. Social media was just growing in importance then. Tracking their write-ups, you get a sense of the film scene in Singapore then. I hope Singapore Film Commission archives the whole site. The J in the interview refers to the one and only Jeremy Sing who covered many of the events. I have reproduced the article here, the original link is no longer active.

‘The Impossibility of Knowing’ is Tan Pin Pin latest documentary. It came into being because Pin Pin was wondering if the video camera can capture the aura of a space that has experienced trauma.

‘I made a list of places I knew about where accidents had happened and we filmed them. But my camera did not “capture” anything. It could be due to the limitations of physics, but the canal remained a canal, the house, a house. Maybe the aura we sought doesn’t exist or we just did not have the requisite gift to see the aura. Maybe you can see better than us.’

This documentary was commissioned by the DMZ Korean International Film Festival. It world premieres at the 2nd DMZ Korean International Film Festival in Sep 10 and it is 12 min long.

Jeremy (J): I read you were intrigued by the New World Hotel site and it sparked off your inspiration for this… Could you share more on it?

Pin Pin (PP): I love reading the newspapers for the human interest news. Every time I spot something interesting, I clip it out and file it away. I have a thick wad of clippings collected over 10 years, tear sheets of lovers fights, zoo animals escaping, suicides, civil service boo boos and what not. Its a random collection of Singaporeana that an archivist will not be able to make sense of, but may be amused by.

When I was commissioned by DMZ Docs to make a film, I decided that it was time for me to revisit that folder. As a start, I picked out the stories that still resonated with me. My previous films Singapore GaGa and Invisible City were born when I tried to join disparate fragments together into something coherent. So likewise, in “The Impossibility of Knowing”, the fragmented news clippings became the source material to be made sense of.

J: How did you go about searching and choosing the places to feature?

PP: I have an abiding interest in places, especially Singapore places and one of the questions and curiosities about them is whether a space can harbour a sense of what happened in it, and whether the camera can capture this aura? My studio is next door to the former site of Hotel New World (now ressurected as Fortuna Hotel”), there is no aura of the collapse where 33 people died in 1986, as far as I can tell, but I wondered if other places which have experienced trauma would have some remnant of that trauma.

The only way to find out was for me to visit these locales to “feel” the place for oneself, and of course to bring a camera along to capture that “sense”. I was also moved by a photograhpy book “On this Site”, by USA photographer Joel Sternfeld (1996). He is one of the new generation of landscape photographers for whom landscape is as much about what is there, as to represent what is not (and cannot?) be represented. So that was also a starting point.

J: Did you meet anyone interesting or along the way? Or interesting anecdotes to share as you began searching? 

PP: In the end, we ditched “quirky” clippings and went for “tragic” incidents to keep a consistent feel between disparate locations. Very early on, perhaps we were influenced by Sternfeld, the DP David Shiyang Liu (in picture above) and I decided that if these locales are to be the focus, the scenes would not have any humans in it nor any movement to emphasise the sense of space and a sense of contemplation.

J: Given that these were places were accidents once happened, were there any spooky experiences at all?

PP: No, we were respectful of what had gone on before in them.

J: Which place had the creepiest aura? If not, which left the greatest impression on you?

PP: More sadness than creepy actually. We visited the new Nicoll Highway station along the Circle Line. When the tunnel collapsed in 2004, a contractor was buried alive while saving his crew because it was too dangerous to take him out without causing further collapse. We visited that locale and saw that the family continues to go to that spot to pay their respects during Ching Ming. In the middle of the field, you see some white paper and joss sticks and a little paper sign with his name. So in this instance, there was a mark of that tragey, even if it was a transcient one. A few days later, back at the site, we noticed the rain had washed everything away. If no body else remembers, the family will.

J: Is there any place you wanted to feature but did not get to do so because of permit issues or inaccessibility?

PP: No.

J: Like you mentioned, ‘a canal is a canal’, so how do you make it different? Can you share a bit on your approach in shooting the scenes

PP: The visual approach is still, it lets the viewers eyes wonder through the frame to decide for themselves. The audience at the premier told me that they felt they had ‘alot of space’ to wonder in their minds. Which is what I was hoping for 

J: How long did you take to make this film?

PP: 3 months on and off, but the news clipping collection was done over many years.

J: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?PP: The biggest challenge was to decide whether to have a voice over, and after that to decide the tone of the VO to take and to decide whom it should be read by. After auditioning quite a few people, we chose Lim Kay Tong (in picture below). Others had read it like they were reading the news, whereas Kay Tong read it as if he was telling you about the place. VO was kept detached, minimal for the visuals to stand out. I liked that it played off his Crimewatch host role. This documentary is the most anti-Crimewatch, crime documentary I think he has done, withholding information rather than giving information.

J: Little India is such a hotbed of activity and culture, it is not surprise you would get your inspiration from your vicinity… can you share what other aspects of your neighbourhood has caught your attention that you would like to make a film about?

PP: Sometimes, when we are stuck during editing, we just go downstairs to have a fresh coconut drink, talk things through and go back to work. It is a pulsating neighbourhood that takes one out of oneself which is a good thing, production can be too intense and insular to the detriment of the product.

J: Could you give us a brief insight into the next project?PP: Working on the Singapore Biennale Commission now, its a series of photographes!! It requires me to travel around Malaysia and Indonesia. I am really looking forward to this.