Featured Filmmaker: Ho Choon Hiong

by Yerry Nikholas Borang May 30, 2017
We interview Ho Choon Hiong, a filmmaker from Singapore who has braved the country's restrictive media laws to present the other side of its story.

Name: Ho Choon Hiong
Age: 37

Current activity: TV Producer

Tell us who you are as a filmmaker. Why did you decide to work with the moving image?

When I was in film school I was very much focused on narrative storytelling. However, in my second year I saw some very eye-opening documentaries like 'Silverlake Life' and 'Roger & Me'. Subsequently, I attended two documentary filmmaking workshops and decided that I would like to make a switch from making narrative films to documentaries.

What radicalized you as a filmmaker? Did it happen in the moment, or was it a process?

I think it was gradual process. And I believe these are some of the important stages:

  • I think that even as a child, I was interested in social issues. Certain social issues be it gay rights, the death penalty, poverty, injustice, racism etc can really make me ponder hard from time to time. I suppose I'm trying to make sense of things and find a meaning in life. I think I'm still searching and experimenting.
  • As a film student, I was glad to come across personal documentaries. In these personal and observational documentaries, I found that the filmmaker speaks with his/her heart and the subjects were very moving. For instance, Silverlake Life, which is a video journey between two HIV partners, really made me think hard about gay people. I realised that documentary film can be a really life-changing medium.
  • Also during my film student days, I was exposed to the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, entitled, 'The Story of My Experiments with Truth'. Up to this day, it has had a profound effect on me and how I see things. In short, I think truth can be quite relative. I won't dare say that truth is absolute. It's like a bat explaining to a housefly that he believes that the world is seen in infra-red. Who is closer to the truth then? Armed with some filmmaking skills, I think that perhaps the only way is to believe what I think is right and presents my perspective of things. And hopefully in that way, I can convince some souls out there to rethink certain issues.
  • After I graduated, I was naturally hoping to put my filmmaking skills to good use rather than to just earn money. As I mentioned, I have always been interested in social issues so now, at least with some skills in filmmaking, I could start to document certain issues that affect me. One of the first things that I was very disturbed about was how the mainstream news in Singapore reports about this local politician, Dr Chee Soon Juan. The press and the government vilified him as a mad and disruptive man, and I wanted to see for myself whether he really was that "bad" after all. What I eventually witnessed during a May Day protest by Dr Chee outside the Istana (the President's office and residence) was something very different from what the press reported. I felt really bad that night as I felt that this politician suffered a grave injustice based on a "one-sided" story. From time to time, I tried to upload videos about him on YouTube, hoping to counter-balance what viewers would have read in the mainstream media.
  • Finally, during the Saffron Revolution a few years later, I was very disturbed by the violence that occurred in Burma. I got to know some Singaporeans who wanted to do something about it, and I guess I put my video skills to good use by sort of becoming a citizen journalist, uploading videos of activities by activists in Singapore regarding the plight in Burma.

As a videomaker, what are the challenges of working in Singapore? What are the restrictive laws in place?

I think the Singapore Film Act is a restrictive law, but that's only the surface. The more draconian thing is the hidden, secret, and sophisticated form of censorship. Basically, whether it's films screenings or theatre productions, they need a venue and unfortunately, most of these local venues rely on sponsorship from the powers that be. There are cases where the film or play isn't something that the "Big Brother" likes. The respective venue operators will be called up and threatened to have their funding cut and, soon enough, the play or film has to be cancelled.

So far, the laws regarding online videos are quite relaxed, which means that the local authorities are closing one eye on the issue. But I have heard that they are going to re-examine those laws in the near future. I can't comment on whether it'll be for better or for worse.

I do wonder why the authorities are currently more relaxed about online video distribution rather than actual film screenings. For instance, local filmmakers Martyn See and Seelan Palay each have a film that is not permissible for screening in a venue and, yet, are easily accessible on the Internet. The authorities have not seemed to do anything about them.

Another interesting observation of mine is that the authorities fear the gathering of people for a specific cause. They fear that people coming together as a group will feel empowered, because each individual might realise that the person next to them is feeling the same passion and be inspired to do something about it. I feel that film screenings have an unseen power.

For instance, once the film has been screened, audiences can ask questions and even make friends with strangers. They can discuss the issue even further and perhaps,magically, these people would feel encouraged and resolved to do something together. That's what I think the powers that be fear, and that's why certain films are not on their wish list to be screened to a mass audience. While online videos do have their own potential, my own assessment is that the bonding among audiences might be lacking.

What are the main issues you address in your video work?

Sorry, that's a tough one. I think I will address anything that compels me enough.

Tell us about your favourite piece of video you have made, in regards to social justice or the environment.

I would like to think that my short film, 'All That You Can't Leave Behind', has some form of poetic justice. It's a documentary about a Burmese activist who got expelled from Singapore for taking part in an "illegal protest" in Singapore during the saffron revolution. It's a film that I'm glad I made.

Hopefully, without sounding boastful, the Burmese activist featured in the film is happy that the documentary probably "saved part of his life". He used the documentary to prove that he was a political refugee to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) and the Australian Embassy. He was initially very worried that, after being expelled from Singapore, he would be in a dire situation as he could not return to Burma for fear of repercussions, and he worried that he would be stuck in a refugee camp for a lengthy period of time without work and money.

I'm glad that within two years of temporary refugee status in Indonesia under UNHCR protection, he now has a new life in Australia and a job. I'm also thankful that the documentary helped to make it faster and easier for his girlfriend (who worked in Singapore) to get a residence status in Australia. They got married in Australia some months back.

How do you think online distribution is changing the field of independent video making? How do you use online tools in your work?

I think that online distribution (and cheap video technology like mobile phones, small DSLR cameras) empowers more people by giving them a chance to disseminate information and to share their own perspectives. It used to be an expensive and controlled medium, but now I think we need not rely solely on mainstream journalists, especially if their sources of information are not credible.

I like the concept of virality. These days, I tend to use Facebook more, be it for photo or video distribution. And almost instantly, people can easily share it.

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