Seeing through a different lens

A class at SMU inspires students to create their own award-winning film 

By Karl Gan, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business

It’s no secret that SMU students lead rich, diverse and varied lives throughout their time in university and after graduation. The curriculum here at SMU encourages students to explore and pursue a multitude of CCAs, academic interests, and passions.

Film is one of them. Not only is there a student-led and student-run filmmaking CCA in SMU that allows budding directors and screenwriters to thrive,  there is also a module, ARTS007: Society and Culture in Film, that gives students a chance to formally learn the basics of direction, shooting and storytelling—as well as the cultural impact of film—under acclaimed actress, director, writer and academic, Associate Professor Margaret Chan.

This class, which falls under one of SMU’s newest and most exciting second majors, Arts and Culture Management, expects students to rigorously analyse classic films and apply their analysis to the art of filmmaking by creating their own work for the final project. This is in line with the goals of the Arts and Culture Management second major, an addition to the School of Social Sciences umbrella in January 2013, which aims to “provide students with a liberal arts education that will train them to be complex thinkers who have the ability to analyse, synthesise, evaluate and problem-solve”, as found in the SMU second major programme structure information.

Earlier this year, a group from the module had submitted their final project for the National University of Singapore’s student short film competition “Singapore on Screen”, which was organised by the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Their film, titled Jia(k), exceeded expectations and beat numerous other contenders to win the critic’s choice prize award.

Title Shot of Jia(k)

Title Shot of Jia(k)

The film, a 7 minute and 50 second documentary, featured the various foods found in Singapore and their impact on different cultures of society, which comes through in the title of the film. It is a play on the word “jiak”, which means ‘eat’ in Hokkien, but with the ‘k’ in parentheses to emphasise the word “jia”, which means ‘home’ in Mandarin. It was crisply shot and edited, with sizzling fried fish and buttery kaya captured in great detail. These wonderful shots of food all accompanied sharp insights on the role of food in our lives, from the development of interpersonal relationships, to establishing Singapore’s name as a food haven for tourists. After watching the film, I was tempted to go out and get a large meal of my own to devour!

Jia(k) interviews tourists to find out their thoughts on local food.

Jia(k) interviews tourists to find out their thoughts on local food.

I sat down with Associate Professor Margaret Chan [MC] and Bill Lim Bing Li [BL], the team leader of the winning group, to discuss the significance of the award. Also at the interview and listening in was SMU alumnus, former student of Prof. Chan and MediaCorp personality, Pornsak [P].


Karl (K): Tell us more about the award and how you guys won it.

BL: Well, it’s basically a short film competition organised by NUS FASS. It had to be a short film, clearly, set in Singapore, and must showcase an aspect of Singaporean culture. I thought why not submit our film, since we had already done it. I don’t know how we won, but I guess they liked it. It was really low-budget; we did everything ourselves.

MC: I know how they won. It captures the essence of Singapore really well. Our own people link food to Singaporean identity. It has a clear and defined identity in that sense. The shots are also spectacular—look at the way each piece of food is shot. You can almost smell and taste the food. You know, they are such good shots that make you almost smell the green of the grass, so to speak. That’s why they won.

A shot of satay from Jia(k).

A shot of satay from Jia(k).

K: Was it difficult to produce the film given that none of you in the group had film or arts-related backgrounds?

BL: I actually took an elective in secondary school. I was from RI, and they had us do these elective modules, so I took a “History of Film” one. I think it gave me a little edge over the others. And I think Prof really taught us about the shots and the editing, so we all roughly knew what to do.

K: What went into the whole process of developing this work? And why food?

BL: Well, we wanted to show a sense of belonging in our work. And we realised food is the best way. We wanted to show availability 24/7, with the timings shown on the clock. It also shows diversity, and tourists and Singaporeans all talk about local food a lot. We had to plan first, and we changed our mind from a different subject earlier in the sem.

A Clock as seen in Jia(k).

A clock as seen in Jia(k).

MC: It’s incredible because they really had nothing to work with. It’s not even a shoestring budget. Good interviews are so important in a documentary, they make or break the film. And you know they use the special microphones for filming, to capture the exact voices and keep out the ambient noise so the shot isn’t too noisy and you can’t hear the people speaking? They didn’t have that. Bill, what did you use?

BL: We used our iPhones with tissue paper wrapped around the speaker with rubber bands.

MC: Incredible. Editing?

BL: The voiceovers we recorded in a GSR. We edited with iMovie.

MC: It’s when you lack the proper equipment, then you have to think harder to find other ways to do it and succeed. It’s heartwarming.

K: So it’s a little like a David vs. Goliath story then?

MC: Yes! That’s a good way to put it. To have had a small independent film like this come out and defy expectations was wonderful.

A scene from Jia(k)

A scene from Jia(k).

K: Tell us a little more about what the Society and Culture in Film module is about.

MC: We do a lot of things in this class. We watch classic films, we talk about them, we write, we learn how to shoot, so many things. It’s difficult because I’m cramming all these lessons which take years in an arts school into one semester. So each aspect of film, we cover in one lesson. It’s a lot of things to take in, you have to always be learning.

K: What are some of the films shown?

MC:  There’s one we’ve watched, “The Scent of Green Papaya” (the 1993 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film). It’s this Vietnamese movie set in Paris and it explores Vietnamese identity. So when we watch the film, we want you to ask yourself, what is Singaporean identity? Your perspective changes when you watch these classic movies. Your soul is impacted.

K: How do you think this class has affected you?

BL: I’ve learned so much. I think I’ve learned that the most important part of filmmaking is storyboarding. You need to plan well, otherwise you can’t shoot. Also, I appreciate movies better now. When I’m watching a movie I think, oh, how did they shoot that, how did they come up with that.

MC: I think this class, and actually arts in general, is useful because it gives you a better understanding of what it means to be a member of society.  You appreciate the small things and discover the little nuances in life. You also appreciate visual medium now. You go into movies and you don’t just sit there and take it all in, you process and you think about what you see. SMU is of course a business school, so you ask what is the use of all this? In the future, you’re going to have to make company videos and marketing videos, and you have to present things. Now you have a filmmaker’s sensibility and you can see storylines and you know how to plan things. You take the life lessons you learn, into the workplace. Here in this class we also explore thematic arguments. We develop your thinking and nuances in the understanding of arts, and these takeaways are so applicable to any work you do.

A scene from Jia(k) showcasing charcoal-grilled toast

A scene from Jia(k) showcasing charcoal-grilled toast

K: Will you be teaching this class again?

MC: I don’t know about that at the moment. I’ve had a huge teaching load this sem.

P: (chiming in) Take care of yourself!

MC: But, at the same time, SMU students are really magnificent and great! They have so much rigour in their thinking and the quality of the work they give me is so wonderful. Look at the films, look at the essays. It is great to teach them. So we’ll see.


Sitting down for the interview were: (from left) Lim Bing Li, Pornsak, Associate Professor Dr. Margaret Chan

Sitting down for the interview were: (from left) Lim Bing Li, Pornsak, Associate Professor Dr. Margaret Chan.

Lim Bing Li is currently a final-year student at the Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business.

Assoc. Prof Chan teaches the following modules at Singapore Management University:

ARTS004 Drama and Scriptwriting

ARTS007 Society and Culture in Film

ACM202 Introduction to Festival Design and Staging

ACM203 Introduction to Museum Management

HUMN004 Cultural Identities and Arts

Keep an eye out for these modules in the bidding window for the next semester!

(from left) The writer, Bing Li, Pornsak, Assoc Prof Margaret Chan

(from left) The writer, Bing Li, Pornsak, Assoc Prof Margaret Chan.

One thought on “Seeing through a different lens

Comments are closed.