Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Stranger in Fiction?

Talking with the director of Not Working Today

by So Young Chang

Abu Ahasan is a Bangladeshi construction worker in Singapore whose boss has withheld payment from his employees for several months. Unwilling to tolerate this situation any further, Abu gathers testimonies from his co-workers and jots them down in his notebook. One morning, he fakes being sick and instead of getting into the lorry, he gets into a city bus to pay a visit to the Ministry of Manpower. Written as such, the premise may seem rather straightforward. But as the opening scenes to Shijie Tan’s short film Not Working Today, the story of Abu’s day off holds a dramatic power that captivated an audience at a civil society event showcasing art about and by migrant workers. As people made their way out of the cinema, there was a collective buzz about the film, as well as about other segments such as a poetry reading from a migrant worker. “It might be a bit of preaching to the choir,” Shijie says in humble response to the reception it got at the event. But there is something special about the communal experience of watching a film in a darkened theatre, in how it can evoke our empathy for strangers and also offer social commentary about a system that is just “not working”.

Abu also happens to be the actor’s real name, and the story he acted out could easily have been his own. Shijie met him at Dibashram, which is a resting space in Little India for migrant workers run by the publisher of the only Bangladeshi newspaper in Singapore. While no longer in session, there used to be troupes of migrant workers who would perform plays once every few months. There you could feel the same conviction for how arts and entertainment could bring people together through shared emotions. Locals would come by to watch the plays and even without subtitles, everyone understood what they were about. In one particular play, Abu was playing the role of a jester and he had a special quality about him that caught Shijie’s eye. Not Working Today was filmed during Abu’s last three weeks in Singapore as he waited for his medical claims to be settled and two days after the end of filming, he returned to Bangladesh.

By the time he made the film, Shijie had spent six months volunteering with TWC2, a migrant worker support and advocacy organization in Singapore. Still in film school at the time, he was compelled to do something after reading an article about the treatment of migrant workers. While he felt strongly about reacting to injustice, he does not subscribe to the term ‘activist’ because it would be reductive in his role as a filmmaker. For one, there is no single cause that he feels committed to as an individual, and furthermore he does not think that one should make art to dictate ethics or moral statements.

“I’m inviting people to complete film. Typically how I think about it is you want to show them just enough for them to be interested, and give them the necessary tools to make their own decisions about the situations that they’ve just seen.”

The focus on provoking thought and sparking conversation is a core driver of what motivates him to make films. What the medium allows for is the space to engage with the human being on the screen, where you can be intensely interested in the well-being of someone else, and in that process, see yourself become a little kinder and a little more humanist.

This work of presenting human emotion and experience requires a lot of care, especially when dealing with subject matter that involves a social justice element. As a filmmaker, there is a fine line between feeling compelled to act and making use of the material. Ultimately, it comes down to having integrity and thoughtfulness from the moment you approach a topic and maintaining it throughout the storytelling. For example, if he had made a film that purely blamed society, it would have been a disservice to the migrant worker community.

“My job when I think of dramatic scenarios is to find the most appropriate, most dramatic, and most human thing to put on the screen. These three things don’t always settle on one thing, and they might be in separate directions sometimes. But when you do find something that pulls them all together, it’s quite special. So my job is to find those things and put it on the screen.”

Where power imbalances abound, the best one can hope for is to open up small pockets of exchange where people can start to listen to each other more. Unlike activists, the difficulty for artists, as Shijie says, is to express a message in a way that doesn’t involve him just telling you what he thinks.

As he wrapped up the film editing process and submitted a rough first cut to the faculty (after all, this was a school assignment), the Little India riots happened. The precise timeline was this: a week after submitting the finished product, he was called in to hear the evaluation, and the night before was when the events unfolded that changed society in ways both minute and profound. This sequence of events coloured the entire proceedings that followed and he was vindicated in the worst way possible that this was an urgent issue.

Not Working Today, it’s fictionalized, but is it fiction?”

Three years after the film was made, the story of Abu still rings true. Where the line between fiction and documentary blurs, the artist positions himself, hoping to communicate something that will eventually make life better for some. For the filmmaker, “you don’t need to think up stories, just look around.”

Abu is not working today. 

Not Working Today won Best Singapore Short Film at the Silver Screen Awards at the 2014 Singapore International Film Festival. It was screened at HealthServe’s event, Builder, Father, Poet at the Projector on August 14, 2016.

So Young Chang has recently finished a 3 month internship with Migrating out of Poverty based at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.