“Controversial — that word has been used a lot,” says Kenneth Teng of his friends’ and peers’ somewhat nervous response to news that sexuality would be the theme for this year’s Perspectives Film Festival.
“Another term used was ‘sensitive topic’,” he recalled. Clearly, it is a subject that Singaporeans are uncomfortable with.
It was especially interesting to hear of these responses from Kenneth and Sophial Foo, joint Festival Directors, because both are still students at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The cohort they are referring to are people roughly their age; young people whose internet-rich environment is filled with tremendous sexual diversity, or so one might have thought.
With an older generation, it might be understandable. For example, “We didn’t talk about sex,” says Sophial of her mother.
But with the younger generation?
“It annoys me,” says Kenneth. “It’s about time we stop hiding from this topic.” And of those whom he knows are gay, “I have friends who are still in the closet.”
Perspectives Film Festival is an annual practicum organised by students from NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, and interested students from other schools. Its aim is to provide a hands-on experience to students across a variety of skills, from conceptualising to organising and executing an arts event.
The films are open to the public, and in fact will be shown downtown at the National History Museum from 8 -11 November 2012. See www.perspectivesfilmfestival.com for more information.
Six films are in the line-up, all touching on the theme of sexuality. There is Belle de Jour, a French film about a married woman who sells sex; it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The Housemaid (South Korea) looks at how the dynamics of a family are destabilised by a strong-willed domestic helper. Zenne Dancer (Turkey) and Fire (India) look at homosexual love in non-Western cultural environments. The closing film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, takes a painful look at abortion.
While I am no film expert, they sound like a well thought-out selection. A few of them I have read good reviews about.
The organisers decided early on that they would not show any film with cuts. If the state censors insisted on cuts, they would rather withdraw the film, they told me. Fortunately, all have been rated, ranging from PG to R2, having been submitted months in advance. Kenneth and Sophial didn’t find the process objectionable. “I think the rating process should be there,” Kenneth said. “Some films can be graphic and we need appropriate audiences for them.”
Keen to understand why the organisers chose the theme of sexuality, I came back to this question.
“This is a topic no one in Singapore really talks about,” explains Kenneth.
Can that be? All over the news is the case about a teenager selling sex and some 62 men being prosecuted, and of a National University of Singapore law student, Alvin Tan, who put highly revealing pictures of himself and his girlfriend on his blog.
Kenneth and Sophial think a distinction needs to be made between sensationalism and mature understanding. About the Alvin Tan case, Kenneth says, “All that hype about his exhibitionism — I think it is a pointless discussion. Actually, I find it rather distasteful.”
To illustrate his assessment of our social climate, he describes a situation in which two friends might be speaking casually on the subject of sex or homosexuality, but others around give “shifty glances”. People judge you negatively when you’re more liberal than them, he says.
More generally, Kenneth and Sophial make the point that while in Singapore we speak of wanting an open economy, “in the arts, there are still restrictions.” He adds, “People say we are not ready to discuss sex, but the difference is I am ready.”
Indeed, that is a common problem in Singapore: using a supposed norm or lowest common denominator as a blanket to smother everyone else.
But are things changing? One important factor is the arrival of foreigners. “They are steadily introducing new cultures and new norms,” Kenneth says.
I don’t think it is so straightforward. Using a veneer of liberalism to mask continuing conservatism — and this includes the kind of conservatism that projects prejudice, discrimination and the preservation of power structures — is a well-honed art. It is something we need to watch out for.
With sexuality, we have the veneer of racy advertisements all over the city, a tolerance for little-censored internet, carefully isolated streets with pick-up bars, and murderously polite ways of putting gay people in their place. But it hardly takes any scratching of the surface to see the judgemental attitudes people have about those who choose to model in those ads, surf porn, visit those bars or are gay.
It is almost as if permitting small corners of liberalism serves the useful purpose of revalidating the comfort and correctness of conservatism. It’s the slight tanginess that just manages to keep the sweetness from cloying you to death.
A film festival can likewise be “used” by conservatives as that veneer. When others accuse us of maintaining an oppressive climate, it is handy to be able to point to a film festival on the theme of sexuality to prove critics wrong. This especially since, as a percentage of the population, the vast majority will not be seeing the films, and of those who do, most may say little more after having seen the films. They keep their thoughts to themselves and share with no other.
This is not to say the event will do nothing to change attitudes. Sure it will, and the organisers are right to try, but let’s be realistic about how very modest the effect will be.
Making change is an uphill battle. Often, one has to magnify small gestures in order to obtain any effect at all.
And so the interview left me thinking: What Singaporeans need to learn about is the value of in-your-face confrontation. It is through such challenge that change is accelerated, though it should also be done in tandem with slow-and-steady education. Confrontation leaves little room for the other side to duck. They have to explain why they are against whatever you are proposing; and in so doing, may perhaps expose their illogicality, bias or hypocrisy.
Yet, our political indoctrination has been so thorough-going that we shrink from it. In fact, very much like how we see sexual expression, we think confrontation is totally negative. It is not our ‘Asian’ way, goes the dogma.
We really need to break out of this self-imposed strait-jacket. It is neither Asian nor is it such a virtue. But I suspect such an attitude will be hard to shake, unless someone comes along and organises — dare I hope? — an annual film festival of porn.