Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin discusses collective memory and erasure of history
Prolific Singaporean film director Tan Pin Pin, whose work interrogates the documentation, presentation and sanitization of Singaporean history, visited Yale for a screening of her 2007 film “Invisible City.”
Miranda Jeyaretnam, Contributing Photographer
Journalist Han Shanyuan flipped through photographs of Chinese student activists in 1950s Singapore for the camera, pausing to tell the director that some of these photos may have to be censored.
After the 2007 documentary “Invisible City” came out, Han was visited by Singaporean Internal Security Department officers who wanted to look through the photos, director Tan Pin Pin said at an event at Yale on April 10. The documentary follows several people in their attempts to preserve memories and archives of pre-independence Singapore, from Han’s photographic archives to a Japanese journalist who interviewed a war veteran that lived through the Japanese occupation of Singapore.
“Invisible City” was screened on Monday, Apr. 10, an event co-sponsored by the Council on Southeast Asia Studies and the Jackson School of Global Affairs. Marcus Yee GRD ’28 moderated a Q&A with Pin after the screening.
“There’s so much in Singapore that almost feels like you need to make a decision about your life every time you produce something that might question the official narrative,” Tan said. “[The film] was more about what keeps people continuing to document … it was a documentary about the documenting instinct.”
Tan emphasized that the film — like the forms of documentary that it features — rested on a kind of “tenuousness” about “how we know what we know today about ourselves.” Information about pre-1965 Singapore was filtered through the film’s subjects, at times through an additional translator, and then through the film itself. This move underscored the precariousness of amateur and personal attempts to record history, leaving just a “faint silhouette of a City that could have been,” according to the film’s synopsis.
One of the subjects in the film, Ivan Polunin, was a medical doctor who documented peoples and wildlife in colonial Singapore and Malaysia on rare color films. As Tan interviews him, Polunin frequently loses his train of thought, something he says was a result of a recent brain surgery.
Following a four-week sold out run at The Arts House in Singapore in July 2007, “Invisible City” won the Asian Vision Award at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival, the Prix de la SCAM at Cinema du Reel and the Asian Cinema Fund at the Busan International Film Festival.
Yee, who is a member of the Council on Southeast Asian Studies graduate student committee, said the film “questions gaps in history, memory and documentation.”
“This film not only looks at memory itself, but how memory is constructed through these different actors and you follow them around in such a careful and intensive way,” Yee said.
Tan’s first film in 2005, Singapore GaGa — which follows the soundscape of Singapore’s buskers, street vendors and elderly Chinese dialect readers — was the first documentary in Singapore to have a cinema release.
Following Monday’s screening, Yee asked Tan about how the film relates to her larger oeuvre.
“You could say it’s a manifesto … for why I make films,” Tan said. “But it is made by interviewing other people who are like me, connecting or doing the laborious task of coming up with answers about our country for ourselves or in the case of the Japanese reporter, not necessarily our country.”
Yee also asked Tan about how the landscape of documenting Singapore’s collective memory has changed over the years. He noted how there has been a sharp increase in memory projects, particularly with the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence in 2015 but also a simultaneous “clamp down” of alternative histories.
Back in 2007, these types of projects felt like something that only she and a few others were conducting, Tan said, whereas in the last few years there has been an “explosion” of recording or narrativizing Singapore’s development. At the same time, she underscored that a narrative that “questions” or critiques the foundations of modern Singapore may still have a “difficult time surfacing.”
“With this film, I just wanted to show that it’s really kind of a private affair when someone just takes questions and runs with it,” Tan said. “I also wanted to show the labors of remembering and the labors of recalling and that it could, at the end of the day, be one person’s job or role to take the work to its natural conclusion.”
In response to a question from the audience about the role of fear in both the process of making the film and that of the film’s subjects, Tan said that she wanted to show how Han, for instance, was “extremely unsettled” about whether or not to show his photographs. Like for Han, the documentation of alternative histories in Singapore can be a question not only of memory but of safety.
In her own practice, the “moment of reckoning” came more so when she was editing her 2013 documentary “To Singapore, With Love,” which follows nine Singaporean political exiles who left Singapore in the 1960s and 1980s during Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum — the country’s political arrests of dissidents, activists and student leaders who had suspected ties to the Communist Party of Malaya. Most of them were detained without trial.
The documentary was banned by the Singapore’s Media Development Authority in September 2014 on the basis that it undermined national security and presented “distorted and untruthful accounts” of how and why the film’s subjects left Singapore. Following its immediate ban, a group of 39 artists in Singapore issued a statement petitioning for the reversal of the ban, while over 350 Singaporeans traveled to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, for the release of the film.
Tan said that she often gets asked about how the political and media landscapes have changed in Singapore over the last decade or more, to which she responds that things have remained the same, if not gotten worse.
Jill Tan GRD ’25 , an anthropology PhD candidate from Singapore, told the News that “Singapore GaGa” was the first Singaporean film she had watched when it was screened in her secondary school. “Invisible City,” was also of interest to her as an anthropologist of Singapore and “fellow chronicler and documenter of life and moments of encounter there.”
Tan’s most recent work, “walk walk,” is a site-specific public art installation at a bus terminal. A film plays inside the terminal’s ticket office, inviting viewers to consider the relationship between walking and freedom. The film will be screened five times a day from this year till 2025.
Tan was one of two Singaporeans invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2018.