National education films tend to get a bad rap for being heavy handed. Those who have grown up in Singapore will be familiar with the patriotic ephemera that come with such films: Vague references to the concept of home, beauty shots of that dragon playground, a wizened character that drops a Chinese proverb or two — the like.
But nostalgia doesn’t come from the radishes used to make carrot cake, as Jastine Tan, the 21-year-old director of My Homeland, A Photography Project by Grandpa Chen opines: Nostalgia comes from the memories and the people behind said savoury snack.
Now in its 8th year, ciNE65 is one of Singapore’s largest platforms for aspiring young filmmakers to produce short films that are — at their heart — patriotic films.
But patriotic hardly means prosaic. Tan’s short film is about a Singaporean man living abroad, whose grandfather’s dying wish to complete his photography project brings him home. And so the protagonist returns to do just that.
He ends up with a perfunctory list of landmarks broadly representative of Singapore, much to the consternation of his grandfather, who chides him for not truly understanding what home really means.
“Patriotic films from Singapore tend to be very on-the-nose,” says Tan. “There are some overdone themes in those types of films, like cheap, lowbrow humour — some people think that it’s ‘heartland’, but I don’t think the audience is as dumb as people think it is.”
Other films on show at this year’s festival include $ingapura, which, despite the acerbic title, belies a soft, sentimental underbelly.
It features one of Singapore’s most quintessential icons: The ubiquitous taxi-driver, here used by director Lan Yu as a placeholder for a typical Singaporean, who are often been derided for being close-fisted workaholics.
Lan wanted to use a familiar symbol to challenge these stereotypes, to offer something of exoneration for a generation oft accused of prioritising money and security above self-actualisation.
“People often think that Singaporeans are money-minded because they focus on work so much, like the taxi driver in the film,” she says. “But he’s representative of Singaporeans that work hard because they want to provide a better life for their family.”
“Like for myself: I can do film now precisely because my parents worked to give me the freedom and privilege to do so.”
Other films in this year’s ciNE65 Best Film category include Heng’s Popiah, a story about a retiring hawker who’s contemplating passing his secret recipe to a keen young neighbour, and Roots of Rejection, where a young man attempts to reconnect to his ancestors buried in Bukit Brown Cemetery before its impending exhumation.
See the rest of the shortlisted films here.